Review: Hugo, 2011, dir. Martin Scorsese

Another year, another film about films and the spirit of filmmaking itself. Leave it to the legendary Martin Scorsese, though, to take the opportunity to fuse together a picture of that persuasion on a grand, macro scale which spans more than a century instead of honing in on a more intimate examination of the craft. With Hugo, Scorsese reaches back through time to celebrate the very foundation of the art form while also striving to usher the medium forward; it’s as much an exultation of film ancestry as it is an earnest attempt to develop it further and push it beyond its boundaries through proper use of 3D technology.

With those high-minded pursuits so central to Hugo‘s intent, would you believe that Scorsese is also trying his hand at making a movie for children? Hugo‘s titular character (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan who resides within the walls of a massive railway station in Paris, where he maintains the station’s numerous clocks and purloins food from vendors and travelers to sustain himself. He’s not totally alone, though; Hugo Cabret has his memories of his father (Jude Law), a love for the cinema, a knack for fixing all things mechanical, and a broken automaton that Mr. Cabret had intended to fix with his son. As Hugo avoids daily capture by Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), the station’s inspector, and comes into conflict with Georges (Ben Kingsley), a cantankerous, miserly toy shop owner, he endeavors to repair the machine on his own in the hopes of discovering a message from his father.

And yet the above synopsis does Hugo no justice; it’s so much more layered than that. Maybe that’s just par for the course considering that Scorsese is at the helm here– he’s clearly not the type to dumb down a film just because he’s making it for kids. Frankly, that’s worthy of applause in its own right when so much children’s fare today is satisfied with doing just that. While the film’s greater implications (specifically its memorialization of modern cinema’s origins) may not resonate with children, Hugo‘s more wondrous characteristics and central messages about family and hope and purpose certainly will, and Scorsese makes none of these elements any less profound or essential than his exploration of filmmaking’s fledgling years.

How does a story about a boy and his broken robot segue into a story rejoicing the cinema? That’s half the joy of Hugo in a nutshell– watching how Scorsese connects the two halves of his pictures so organically. Eventually, Hugo meets Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young girl who happens to be Georges’ goddaughter and also the possessor of a heart-shaped key– which happens to be the missing piece of Hugo’s automaton. Coincidences upon coincidences. It turns out that the common denominator between the two children is the bitterly harsh Georges himself– who happens to be none other than Georges Méliès, the director of the famous picture Le Voyage dans la lune (among many others) and an early pioneer in the technical and narrative aspects of filmmaking.

There’s no spoiling here; anyone can check IMDB or Wikipedia and see that Kingsley is credited as playing Méliès. What Georges is doing in Scorsese’s children’s movie is the real mystery, and watching as Scorsese slowly makes his way to that truth is a pleasure. (Though Méliès’ inclusion makes me want to read the book on which the film is based to see how much Scorsese embellished and expanded on the original story, if at all.) But regardless, Hugo truly kicks off once Méliès is introduced; until that point, Scorsese’s just wowing us with exquisite cinematography, dazzling, minute set and character details, and development of plot, putting us under his film’s spell as he builds closer and closer toward the emergence of his picture’s raison d’être.

With Méliès’ identity in the open, Hugo becomes something of a personal thank you note from Scorsese to cinema as a medium. Yes, there’s absolutely no question that he’s paying tribute specifically to Méliès here, but there’s very much a sense in the film’s second half that it’s not just Méliès Scorsese is paying homage to but cinema itself. Intrinsically, Hugo is a film about why we fall in love with the movies and why they matter to us at all; it’s about the delight and catharsis of discovering the magic of the movies for yourself. And indeed, Hugo poses the argument that films by their very nature are magical– we’re told that Méliès got his start as a magician and saw in film the opportunity to perpetrate illusions more grand than he could possibly imagine. Movies are magic made manifest, in their fashion, and yet despite being fabrications they nonetheless possess the power to heal us, bring us together, make us whole again. Hugo is populated with characters who are missing one thing or another in their lives, whether it’s love or simple companionship or dignity or their sense of self, and the entire picture builds up to them being fixed– as Hugo fixes his clocks, the automaton, and eventually Méliès himself– by cinema.

Hugo is about finding the adventure in cinema, too. At least, that’s how Hugo describes it to Isabelle when he learns she’s never been to the movies before; the boy takes the opportunity to sneak into a theater with her to watch part of Safety Last! (a scene from which Scorsese lovingly replicates later on) before being ejected by the proprietor. But infiltrating the theater isn’t the adventure– it’s the movie itself. More importantly, Hugo is about how these two children come to have a genuine adventure of their own after merely reading about them in books or experiencing them through cinema. They’re no longer passively invested in a story being told to them– they’re in one themselves, which only adds to Hugo‘s overarching sense of wonder.

We spend so much time with Hugo and Isabelle throughout the film, and I’ve spoken of them so many times in this very review, that to avoid talking specifically of their portrayals any longer would constitute negligence. Standing out among a cast of veteran performers is no small feat, and while I say this often of young actors in films boasting strong adult casts, it’s no less true here; they’re just excellent, with Butterfield cutting to the core of Hugo’s dueling conditions of isolation and optimism while Moretz giving Isabelle a charming precociousness that belies an understated sense of kinship with Hugo. (And she does an English accent that’s superior to that of most adult performers today.)

They hold their own against the likes of Kingsley, who captures the soul of Méliès (as well as his look) perfectly; Cohen, whose sense of timing and emoting make Gustav into a pitiable, sympathetic fool rather than a cruel authority figure; and Helen McCrory, luminous and heartfelt as Méliès’ wife and muse Jeanne. But that’s just scratching the surface of the talent on display here. From Michael Stuhlbarg to a slew of Harry Potter alums, cineastes should keep themselves well entertained just by playing “I spy” throughout the film.

But Hugo doesn’t just appeal to the cineastes. Certainly they stand to gain the most from it in the film’s deep-rooted love of early cinema, but even the most casual audience member won’t be able to resist the delight of watching a post-converted version of Le Voyage dans la lune in cinematographer Robert Richardson’s beautiful 3D presentation; film is a universal language that speaks to all of us no matter where our interests lie. And maybe there’s no more fitting tribute to Méliès and his legacy than a firm demonstration of how 3D technology can be used effectively to enhance the story, rather than as a cheap gimmick; Hugo so often looks like a painting with the way that the colors just melt across the screen. As gears fade into a shot of Paris in the evening, as that ill-fated rocket crash-lands right in the eye of the man in the moon, as a runaway train plows through the station before coming to an unceremonious halt on the sidewalk outside, and as flakes of snow drift so close to us that we believe we can touch them, it certainly feels as though Scorsese has done Méliès proud.


19 thoughts on “Review: Hugo, 2011, dir. Martin Scorsese

  1. Your review is right on the money. To answer your question, very little was embellished from the book to the movie. The only elements that were enhanced were expanding Gustav’s character (in fact, he’s not given a name in the book, but is only referred to as the Station Inspector) and the romance between the two older people in the train station (both played by Harry Potter alums). In fact, one character from the book was deleted, a young man who tries to sneak the kids into the theater and later helps them at the film library; his removal is not missed in the movie and in fact helps the story because it gives Hugo more of an active role in the plot. I highly suggest reading the book, because it’s told through both word and pictures that are wonderfully drawn by the author.

    • You know, if I’d seen Hugo sooner I might have put the book on my Christmas list. In fact I definitely would have. I’m extremely curious to check it out now– everything I’ve read about it, including your description, makes it sound as singular and unique as the film itself.

  2. Had a feeling you’d love this one.

    I took a stand and called it as I saw it, I felt it was very good, but not great.

    Personally, I felt the pacing was off, and for a story about a magical mechanical contraption, we definitely wound up someplace – not mundane, certainly – but certainly grounded firmly and not fantastical.

    However, I knew I’d hold the minority position on it, and shant attempt to begrudge any one who did connect with it solidly. I’m actually happy that you and PG and others really took to it. I wish I had connected with it more.

    Cap saw what I was saying, that’s all I need. LOL. When you’ve got Captain America at your back? No worries. 😀

    Good review of course. Dont want to forget that!

    • I think Hugo works overwhelmingly or adequately depending entirely on whether Scorsese is able to enchant you in the first half of the film, something I touch on briefly in the review. There are issues with the narrative and the approach to telling the story in that first chunk of the picture, I think (this covers it pretty well), but those issues either remain issues or completely dissipate depending on whether or not Scorsese is able to captivate you in the early going. Clearly that’s what happened with me.

      I think that’s because Hugo, ultimately, is about filmmaking more than it is about writing, which feels appropriate considering the film’s interests and focal points. In a film about filmmaking, shouldn’t the filmmaker be the one to transport and dazzle us more than the scriptwriter? Thing is, Logan IS a good writer, but Scorsese’s a better director than Logan is a writer, being more than capable of making up for a script’s shortcomings with his storytelling prowess.

      So I’m not going to say that the film is perfect. I’m just going to say that its flaws (which I might argue are minor), and that it transcends them effortlessly.

      Wish you’d connected with it more, too, but differences in perspective are what make life interesting anyhow, yeah?

        • Indeed he does. It put me off at first, but after reading him for a bit I got used to it. And he has a lot of really smart things to say, so he’s very much worth following.

          I’m a HUGE Faraci fan, even when I disagree with his arguments or his approach to arguments; he balances out his passion for the medium perfectly with high knowledge of what constitutes good filmmaking. So while I regret him splitting from CHUD (maybe less now that CHUD seems to be in some kind of trouble), I’m really happy for the existence of BADASS DIGEST.

  3. For the longest time I though this was an animation … I don’t know why.

    Mostly I want to see this just to see Scorcese’s take, but in all honesty I’m not the biggest fan of children’s cinema. It usually gets too sappy for me.

    • I think the idea of Scorsese tackling children’s fare alone should be enough to get most movie lovers into the theater. I agree that most such things fall under the “sappy” category, but this avoids all such pitfalls.

  4. Wow looks like you really liked (or loved) this. Personally, I thought it was a good movie but had some pretty major flaws such as the tonal shifts between the first and second half or the fact that this movie is probably a bore for its seeming target audience: kids. Nonetheless, I appreciate what Scorsese tried to do and I’m glad to have seen it.

    • It really moved me, and that’s even recognizing that the structure of the first half is flawed. Logan’s a good writer but I think he came at the material from an off angle, but appropriately enough Scorsese seizes the reigns and emphasizes how great direction can supersede the missteps of a script. If the first half is a bit wonky, Scorsese makes up for it with excellent filmmaking.

      I don’t disagree on the tonal disparity between Hugo‘s two halves, but I don’t think that it keeps the picture from working. Everything about Hugo’s life in the station and his quest to repair the automaton and discover his father’s message is sort of a red herring; it’s never actually about receiving something from his dad but coming across the will to do something great with his life and lift himself above his isolation. I’d call the automaton the film’s MacGuffin, but I don’t know if that’s 100% accurate. The confused meaning Hugo attributes it is what matters.

      You may be spot on that kids won’t get it, though. All of the Méliès stuff may well go right over their heads, and I don’t know if kids growing up today will quite connect with discovering the movies the way that older people (including those of us who aren’t really “old” by any standards) will. Kids are living in a world of instant gratification where moving images are available at their fingertips; asking whether the story of how these things came to be will resonate with them or not is perfectly valid. That said I also tend to give children a lot of credit for being much smarter than most of us realize, and I wonder if we’d all be surprised at how much Hugo connects for them. But who knows?

      Thanks for stopping in Cas! Sounds like you enjoyed it– just not as much as I did. Discussion, though, is always good.

  5. I really loved this film. I knew nothing about going in, except Scorsese. I was very interested in where things were going. The visual style was phenomenal and I really liked the way the camera was so loose. Once I grabbed a hold of what was really going on, I was completely hooked and sold on it. The love for film was all over this, and it was just a magical time at the movies. I also loved the message on finding your purpose in life and finding what you love and never losing track of it.

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  8. (Doubling back here after checking to see where this (and if it, which it did) ranked on your year-end lists…)

    “Frankly, that’s worthy of applause in its own right when so much children’s fare today is satisfied with doing just that.”

    This is a big part of what I’m thinking about today, having seen Hugo last night. I hear all of the time from parents telling me (a new parent to a one-year old) how I’m in store for watching “every kids movie out there 50 times,” how I’m in store to watch every piece of shit cartoon that comes by, etc., etc. Meanwhile, I hold out hope that this is the kind of movie that I want my daughter to see – “See, people, not every non-Pixar kid flick has to suck!”

    This thing made me feel like a kid, made me want to be in Hugo’s shoes (impressive, given his shitty parental/housing/food situation), made me want to exist in that train station. This felt like a long-lost Spielberg flick from the 80s, right down to the daddy issues, with a big heaping of cinematic love thrown in for good measure.

    In fact, I’m almost a bit sad that the stuff regarding the silents/classic film has overtaken the discourse; it is of course great, but there was so much more and I feel like I would have loved it even without it.

    This vaulted into either my top spot or perhaps #2…I have yet to decide. Making it a holiday tradition – and making sure my daughter sees it early and often – will be a priority.

    • As I think about the inevitability of fatherhood (in my foreseeable future), I think about what that means in terms of watching movies I’d really rather not see. And then I think about a movie like Hugo. Hugo, one could argue, is a tough sell for kids, but I think it absolutely functions as a kids’ movie and if more kids’ movies were like it I’d be thrilled. This is the sort of stuff that I want children to be watching. Children in general and my children specifically.

      Like you, I wanted to visit the Paris of Hugo something fierce. The way Scorsese world-builds here is nothing short of magical, and I think it’s that directorial element that minimizes the impact of the script’s issues. It’s great direction in action.

      Hugo is a trip. An emotional trip and a historical trip. As you can tell it hit me right away and earned an immediate spot in my top five.

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