I always ramble on in my reviews about how Movie A loves the art of film (Super 8) and how Movie B stands as an all-out assault to the craft (Transformers 3). Somehow I even managed to testify how The Muppets comments on the nuances of filmmaking. This college freshman is just hopped up on too many film history courses to realize that not everyone makes movies with that meta-theory, this-next-one-goes-out-to-André-Bazin approach. Relax. But now one of the greatest storytellers in film history as well as its most vocal advocate has gifted us Hugo. Those gung ho instincts are rushing back. Martin Scorsese did not just want to make this film; he needed to.
Scorcese, who has dedicated his career to stories about mobsters, psychopaths and mobster-psychopaths, loosens the knuckles for once to write this love letter to cinema. Hugo can be labeled “family-friendly” but it speaks strongest to those who have a history with the movies. The darker color palette, 2-plus hour length and deliberately slow pacing may bore kids raised on flashy visuals and simple narrative substance.
With that said, Robert Richardson’s cinematography and the visual effects department’s work stun from the opening shots where busy clock cogs transition seamlessly into an aerial view of an equally-busy Paris. The set design of the train station where Hugo lives, glorifies the era while still uncovering its grime. Scorsese, who loves tracking shots a la Goodfellas, coasts the camera across train platforms and through steam pipes with precision and purpose. The 3D lends a dimension to help us appreciate it all. Instead of the typical approach, equating new technology to a loss of humanity, these beautiful strokes of bustling industry praise the wonder of human progress. The celluloid reel itself was a new step in progressive ingenuity.
Hugo is based on Georges Méliès, visionary behind the ubiquitous 1902 classic A Trip to the Moon who explored film’s potential when it was still shunned as a passing novelty. Méliès, the man, lives in the world of this movie. But first he must be found, and orphan Hugo Cabret toils to reunite the spirit of the artist with the current pessimistic shell left of the man. The years between the end of Méliès’ career, brought by World War I, and the early 30s setting of the film have not been kind to the moviemaker. His films are, to his knowledge, all extinct in physical form and memory, and even historians write him off as dead. He has grown bitter with the world and shuts himself and his family off from his former profession and eternal passion. With the help of Méliès’ goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Moretz), Hugo tries to reach the neglected director to show him that his work has not been forgotten.
The movie spends time detailing the biography of Méliès, but its heart lies in young Hugo. More so than any other protagonist in the Scorsese canon, Hugo reflects the man behind the camera. Social outcasts as children, they find solace at the movies. There is a great scene where Hugo takes Isabelle, who has never seen a movie before, to the theatre. Inspiration for the film’s poster and clock tower scene, is screening and Isabelle finds the suspense of a man nearly falling from a building rapturous. You can imagine this scenario as Marty’s perfect date. After the death of his father, Hugo goes to extreme lengths to fix the mysterious automaton connected to film history. Even Hugo’s dreams are shot and cut with the omnipotent visuals of a silent movie. Despite the pressures of his largest budget and targeted demographic, Scorsese answers only to his heart.
Asa Butterfield, who plays Hugo, hits the pathos that a role of such Oliver Twist lows and highs demands. Chloë Moretz swore obscenities in Kick-Ass, but she speaks with a more dignified maturity here. Both of these young actors have potential to crossover to successful careers, as they are already catering to adults more their own peers. The rest of the cast list contains some big names that should be left unseen until the end credits roll. Look for a little romance between two Harry Potter actors, one in a distinct change of form. I will mention Sacha Baron Cohen, agent provocateur in Borat and Brüno, who plays the grouchy station inspector eager to send any stray children to the orphanage. His service in the Great War, where he sustained a crippled leg, has left him cold and lonely over the years, but a lovely flower saleswoman reignites that dormant tenderness. His character is played for laughs in his bumbling chase sequences where Scorcese’s soaring camera captures crowd-pleasing physical gags with rare grace. Yet Scorsese makes Cohen’s station inspector surpasses this caricature to become, like most of the film’s characters, a real person. Brian Selznick’s acclaimed novel, the basis for John Logan’s screenplay, insists humans are inherently good and great art will never die. A heartwarming notion, if a little idealistic. Scorsese’s spin advocates for the preservation of film, something he has long championed. Almost all of Méliès’ reels were melted down to plastic for the heels of women’s shoes, and he thought no one would care. Only by a streak of good luck pursued by Hugo’s goodwill were the remaining works found.
Scorsese wants you to appreciate the significance of art’s most vulnerable medium, and not just its aesthetic value. Only film can bring dreams to life in a single place, where children and elders can watch together and await the adventure ahead or nod at the superimposition of image with their own past. And with more kids like Hugo, perhaps even those watching this film, the future will be safe, too. Children are the future, after all, even in the past.