Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sasha Baron Cohen, Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Jude Law
Trailers can do terrible things. One only needs to remember the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo for proof. I remember groaning at the thought of what was seemingly a standard childhood adventure about a boy and his robot in a train station – and in 3D! I thought how could the man who made Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas, and The Departed make what seems like a lame little kids movie? And I’m willing to bet that a lot of Scorsese fanboys thought similarly. Just as one should not judge books by their covers, it is important to not judge films by their trailers. This lesson is in full effect with Hugo, for it is a magical tale that, under the guise of a family film, brilliantly uses cutting edge technology to celebrate film’s rich history and tell a sincerely sentimental story.
I sensed something special right from the beginning. Martin Scorsese's amazing filmmaking skills are evident with Hugo’s first shot of the gears in a clock dissolving into the streets of Paris, followed by the camera’s swoop through the train station to reveal the young boy hidden behind its clocks. Without a line of dialogue, we become transported into the world inside this 1930s train station. Every aspect of this life is introduced, such as a crotchety old toyshop owner (Ben Kingsley), a tyrannical station inspector with an injured leg (Sasha Baron Cohen), a sweet and beautiful florist (Emily Mortimer), and generous librarian (Christopher Lee). The lives of these characters, and other supporting characters, will intersect with the boy behind the clocks throughout the course of the film.
That boy is the Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), and since the death of his father (Jude Law), the train station has become his home. Having been his father’s apprentice, Hugo is a skilled clockmaker. By secretly keeping all of the station’s clocks on time, and avoiding the grasp of the station inspector, Hugo is able to avoid the dreaded orphanage and work toward fixing the last relic left from his past life, an automaton he was renovating with his father. Stealing parts from the toymaker and befriending the toymaker’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), allows Hugo to uncover the automaton’s secret message, one hopefully sent from his departed dad.
Hugo would likely remain a sweet little film if the narrative thread ended there, but through the automaton’s message, Scorsese opens the story up to a transcendent new path. Once the most iconic image of the silent era is revealed to Hugo and Isabelle, Hugo is no longer just the story of a misfortunate boy seeking a home, but also the story of an influential artist’s return to relevance and a celebration of cinema itself. It is in this second plotline, one completely absent from its terrible trailer, where the magic of Hugo is truly revealed.
Hugo says at one point, the movies are “our special place” where we can see our dreams in the middle of the day. The friendship that blossoms between Hugo and Isabelle, and the adventure that follows, is built upon the wonders of the movies. Hugo, a lover of cinema, and Isabelle, a lover of books, unite their passions in one of the film’s best sequences when their adventure takes them to the library to read about the forefathers of film in The Invention of Dreams by Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlberg) . Along with the kids, the audience learns about the greats of the silent era from Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin to Buster Keaton and Georges Mélièse through this book.
I can only imagine the smile on Scorsese’s face as he sneaks in an valuable history lesson about his own passion to the countless of families who sought out a nice film to see last holiday season. He even takes us inside the studio of one of film’s earliest and most influential works, Mélièse’s La Voyage dans le Lune (1902). The black-and-white and old-fashioned images of our earliest films have life breathed into them like never before. A unique and magical artistry by these film pioneers was needed to bring dreams to the screen. Unfortunately, their artistry has been nearly forgotten. Like it is Hugo and Isabelle’s mission is to remind one artist that his gifts are recognized and cherished, I believe it is Scorsese’s mission to remind 21st century audiences about these often overlooked works of art.
Yet Hugo has more going for it than having a lot of cinephile candy. All of its pieces are excellent. First and foremost, each member of the giant cast, full of highly respected actors, gives great performances (no matter how big or small their roles are). Scorsese gives each character moments to shine, which becomes quite the balancing act. As the old toy maker, Ben Kingsley subtly portrays the deep and bitter sadness of a genius who has wasted away his talents. Helen McCrory’s (whom readers may recognize as Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter films) tears of joy while reminiscing of happier times when she was part of a groundbreaking artistic movement is one of Hugo’s most moving scenes. As the film historian, Rene Tabard, Michael Stuhlbarg (from the Coen Brothers’ disturbingly underrated A Serious Man) effectively shows how cinema can inspire. There is even great comedy in Hugo provided by Sasha Baron Cohen (abandoning his Borat and company schtick) as the authoritative, but pathetic, station inspector who may deserve more sympathy than initially expected. I feel like I could continue this list with every character, but special attention is needed for the two leads.
It is often a dangerous move to give your lead roles to children, but with Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz, the gamble pays off in Hugo. Our heart continually breaks for poor Hugo during his hardships and there is a sincere interest in his well-being and happiness in the end. These emotions I felt are a testament to Butterfield’s performance. Scorsese found a winner in casting this unknown. As Isabelle, Chloë Grace Moretz is less of an unknown. She was the highlight of Kick-Ass, cracks me up in 30 Rock cameos as Alec Baldwin’s nemesis, and received high acclaim in the vampire horror remake, Let Me In. As the precocious and adventurous Isabelle, Moretz continues her solid string of performances in Hugo. These two kids are the centerpieces of Hugo as we follow them through the train station and into the wonders of cinema.
As impressive as the storytelling is, the technical achievements in Hugo are equally impressive. The opening shot I mentioned earlier (the swoop through the station) is virtuosic, but sequences like that abound. With costumes and a set design that is well integrated with CGI renderings, the world in this train station of a bygone era is perfectly realized. Whether we are flying over Paris, gliding along the tracks, or climbing ladders among the gears in the clock tower, the visuals are always top of the line. There are moments of beauty, moments of wonder, and moments of terror that all had me on the edge of my seat for different reasons. Every filmmaking trick at Scorsese’s disposal, including the use of a memorable score that feels at home in this world, was not only used during Hugo but also mastered.
It is clear that I loved pretty much everything about Hugo, and it deservedly claimed the top spot on my prestigious “Best of 2011” list. Looking at my list of the year’s best films (in my July 13th post), I am impressed by the diverse array of excellent films. Yet the one that stood out from the rest was the 3D family film adapted from a children’s book (The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick). However, when the person making that adaptation is one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time, something special could result. I should have ignored the terrible trailer and trusted Martin Scorsese, because his venture into the family film genre is about as good as it gets.
One final thought...
I am admittedly a 3D skeptic, usually finding it either pointless or distracting and always a waste of money. But there are times when the tactic is used effectively and I am willing to recognize that fact. Hugo was one of those times. It is clear that Scorsese took great care to effectively use this new tool in moviemaking. The camera swoops in and around this world, and things fly by you in the stereotypical “3D fashion” but it always has a different feel. I believe that this is because its main use is to provide great depth to the scene and fully immerse you in the environment, rather than just show off a few gimmicky “wow” moments. How the subtlest moments, such as a head ever so slowly leaning forward or the specks of snow floating in the air, become the most memorable shows just how well 3D was used.
But most importantly, the use of 3D doesn’t detract from the 2D experience. Having seen Hugo in 3D at the theaters and in 2D on bluray, it is safe to say that this film is equally as strong in both versions. Hugo is great because of its wonderful story first and its state-of-the-art presentation second. When that is the priority, the film will hold up no matter how one watches it.
Mark it 9.