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.