Martin Scorsese’s HUGO is a film lover’s dream. A homage to those early days of cinema when virgin movie audiences would jump from their seats frightened the oncoming train would burst right through the screen and run them over.
The film is based on the children’s novel, “The Invention of Hugo Caberet” by Brian Selznick. The last name should sound familiar. Brian is a relative of the late Hollywood producer, David O. Selznick whose classic films included “Gone with the Wind,” “Spellbound,” “Rebecca” and “David Copperfield.” It must have been some kind of organic fate that attracted the filmmaker, connoisseur and historian Scorsese to this woven tale of fantasy and celluloid love.
Enchanting is not a word that comes to mind when discussing Martin Scorsese films but I cannot think of a better one to describe this affectionate look at the early days of a new art. The name Georges Mêliés will mean little if anything to most current filmgoers, it’s a name almost lost in the passage of time. An early pioneer in the art of film, Mêliés short works were innovative gems of science fiction and fantasy using cinematic techniques like stop motion, time lapse photography, dissolves and editing to create early celluloid magic with works like, “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) and “The Impossible Voyage” (1903).
Scorsese not only channels Mêliés but also pieces of Steven Spielberg (childhood adventure), Tim Burton (machinery), Fritz Lang (the automaton) and Harold Lloyd ( Hugo hanging from the arm of a clock) and in the process created one of the best films of the year. A film that will be enjoyed by anyone of any age with a keen imagination.
The Director visually astonishes the audience with stunning camera movement. For example, there is an early scene inside the large railway station, where most of the film unfolds, Scorsese’s camera plows its way through a crowd of people in a stunning shot, pushing deeper and deeper into the congested station, thrusting us right into the middle of the hustle and bustle. He frames much of the film from Hugo’s point of view, who for most of the film is a passive character. He is a spectator watching the world unfold, much like the audience. This is reinforced by various shots through windows giving us a sense the young boy is watching a movie unfold. New York Times critic Manohla Dargis calls “Hugo” a ‘proxy for a young Mr. Scorsese.’
The railway station is where Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives since the unexpeceted death of his father (Jude Law). He was brought there by a gruff Uncle (Ray Winstone) whose job it is to keep the station’s many clocks working precisely. The Uncle soon disappears and Hugo is left alone with his one remembrance of his father, an automaton in need of repair. Hugo’s attempts to repair the android involve stealing pulleys, wheels and other parts from a cranky old toy seller (Ben Kingsley)whose small toy repair shop is located inside the railway station. The old man eventually catches Hugo, demands he returns the parts he has stolen , even confiscating a small book of Hugo’s given to him by his father. The unlikely pair strike a deal, Hugo will work around the old man’s shop. In exchange, the old man will return his book, maybe. Hugo soon meets Isabelle, who it turns out is the goddaughter of Hugo’s new boss. Together they soon discover a hidden secret the grumpy and melancholy old man has tried to forget. He was and is the once great innovator and pioneer filmmaker, Georges Mêliés, thought dead by many, and his films all lost. A film historian, the two youngsters met in a library, brings back recognition to the defeated Mêliés, and we soon learn many of his films thought lost have been found in vaults and basements around the world where they laid dusty and forgotten for many years. Hugo also discovers the one missing link to repairing the automaton, restoring it to its original working order, a gold shaped key hanging as a ornament around Isabelle’s neck.
Scorsese has created a film about a young boy and old man, both frightened, lost, deprived of their dreams. In the course of the film, the boy manages to restore the automaton, and the old man find his creative genius has not been lost nor forgotten. Essentially, Scorsese has created a fascinating allegory of film preservation and restoration. A film that only Martin Scorsese could have brought to the screen with such love and devotion.
I watched the film in 3-D, a process I generally attend to avoid as I have found it unnecessary in the few films I have seen in this format. It generally comes across as a lazy way for the filmmakers to create a “wow” moment from audiences who are moved when a flying piece of debris seems to be coming right at them, similar to the early unsophisticated audiences who screamed when they first watched that train coming at them back in those primitive days of movie going in store fronts and sitting on wooden benches. Here, Scorsese’s use of 3-D is reserved yet it seems to enhance the visual aspects of the story without getting in the way.
Frankly, I am not sure this film will be for everyone, young children especially. That’s a problem since this is supposedly a family film. The film may be a bit complex for some young ones and demands some patients, something that is in short supply with many. But as the old saying goes, patients is a virtue, and those who wait will be rewarded.
Unlike most of Scorsese’s other works there are no bloody dead bodies proliferating on the sidelines as the film progresses. The most frightening aspect in the film is a Doberman with an intense instinct to hunt at the immediate command of its master, an intimidating railroad station policeman (Sacha Baron Cohen) who is after Hugo, wanting to place him in an orphanage, for most of the film. Other cast members include Christopher Lee, Emily Mortimer and Michael Stuhlbarg.