Given that mobsters, profanity-laden discourse and copious amounts of violence are common inhabitants in Martin Scorsese’s filmography, the fact that his latest effort is a PG-rated 3-D family film should raise a few eyebrows. Why this project? Is the maestro becoming senile? No! If anything, he’s only getting better. Not only is “Hugo” a delightful and touching adventure, it’s Scorsese’s most personal film yet.
The orphaned Hugo (Asa Butterfield) maintains the clocks at a Parisian railway station during the early 1930s. When he’s not stealing food or peeping in on the affairs of the station’s workers, he retreats behind the walls to mend a broken automaton –– a mechanical man that his father (Jude Law) was repairing before his untimely death. His work is nearly complete, though he needs one final piece: a key with a heart-shaped bit.
Convinced that the automaton holds a message from his father, Hugo confides in Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), the goddaughter of toyshop owner and former legendary filmmaker Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). With his newfound companion, he seeks to uncover the truth behind the automaton while evading the clutches of the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who is eager to send children like Hugo to the local orphanage.
So, why this film? Why did Scorsese choose “Hugo” to be his next film out of all his planned projects?
As it turns out, “Hugo” takes the audience deep into the director’s very soul — specifically, his love of cinema. This is a man whose fascination with film spans several decades, starting from when he was a young lad, when he watched classics such as “Land of the Pharaohs” and “El Cid.” Indeed, it is no coincidence that the film’s protagonist is a boy: We can certainly imagine that Scorsese sees much of his own childhood in Hugo, who regards the earliest films with such awe and thrill.
Méliès’ history and career is spellbindingly told, and it is here that Scorsese’s loving touches are evident. The film shows that Méliès was a magician before becoming a filmmaker, using the influence of the former to create illusions and cut and tape film reels together to trick his audiences, thus becoming the pioneer of special effects. Despite making over 500 films, more than 400 were lost, and Méliès himself believes that he is forgotten. To Scorsese, such films are precious artifacts in history and should be preserved for future generations to appreciate, not melted down like Méliès’ were. Not only does Scorsese salute one of cinema’s innovators, he also metaphorically saves the man’s legacy.
The film at first takes its time in unraveling, as its first half is dedicated mostly to Hugo’s escapades and his history. At times, the pacing is almost excruciating, since what happens onscreen isn’t very captivating.
The second half, which launches into Méliès’ career, becomes very much like a lecture on film history, but it consists of the film’s best scenes. In a sense, Hugo isn’t necessarily the focus of the film; instead, he is used to observe and tell Méliès’ story.
Yet, the film eventually balances Hugo’s story with Méliès’ legacy quite neatly, to the point where children can enjoy the adventure and older viewers can appreciate the deeper meanings behind it.
Though the second half more than manages to pay off the amount of time we spend in the first half, perhaps it would be very beneficial if the film didn’t spend much time developing its secondary characters. After all, there’s no need to see the station inspector try to woo the flower girl (Emily Mortimer) or the café owner (Frances de la Tour) and the newspaper seller (Richard Griffiths) try to get together. These are just distracting and unnecessary sequences.
What makes “Hugo” such an engaging picture are the child leads. Asa Butterfield executes Hugo’s determination and knowledge of gadgets flawlessly, and his large, blue eyes emphasize his childlike innocence. He shares a lively chemistry with Chloë Grace Moretz, who makes Isabelle’s thirst for adventure so charming.
At first portraying Méliès as a cantankerous old man, Ben Kingsley gradually exposes his character’s lack of self-esteem and emotional vulnerability in the present and livens up with enthusiasm in flashbacks.
Sporting a brace for his character’s wounded leg, Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance is reminiscent of Dickensian villains like Fagin in “Oliver Twist.” Despite his twisted intentions, he is often at the film’s humorous moments, which Cohen handles with ease.
Though they don’t have the benefit of a long onscreen presence, the rest of the cast manage to effectively communicate their characters’ emotions and personalities.
The way in which 3-D is utilized is absolutely breathtaking. Here, it serves as not a gimmick, but an enhancement of depth and focus effect, which is emphasized by cinematographer Robert Richardson’s careful hand in every shot. The film’s opening sequence, in which the camera swoops inside the railway station from an overhead shot of Paris, is magnificent, as people and objects are brought in and immediately out of focus as the camera quickly streaks past them.
The film’s look and feel changes according to the story’s mood. In the present, the color tones are drab, though they become vibrant during flashbacks and as the characters eventually find happy endings. The same goes for Howard Shore’s score, which seesaws back and forth between childlike liveliness and intriguing mystery.
Those who were awestruck by the moving pictures up on the silver screen as children should feel right at home when watching “Hugo.” Bolstered by a delightful story, fantastic performances and the strongest use of 3-D to date, the film is not just Scorsese’s celebration of cinema, but his touching love letter to it.
Rating: 4 out of 5