When I first saw the previews for Steven Spielberg’s War Horse and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, I was sorely disappointed and thought that these films will hardly be counted among the masters’ greatest. The first one looked awfully sentimental, the other one too kid-oriented. I still haven’t seen War Horse, but boy was I wrong about Hugo. Admittedly, the film is perfect fare for children… but adults will have plenty of reasons to sit through it as well.
In the 1930s, young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in the walls of the Gare Montparnasse station in Paris. Every day, he steals enough food to get by and makes sure that every clock in the station is maintained. As long as they work properly, no one has a reason to wonder whatever happened to Claude Cabret (Ray Winstone), the alcoholic watchmaker who disappeared one day. Hugo was happy to see him go; all he has to do now is make sure that the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) doesn’t find out about him, or he’ll be sent to an orphanage. The boy’s father (Jude Law) died some time ago, leaving Hugo in Claude’s care, and he still mourns him deeply. Hugo shared an interest with his father in everything mechanical; together, they worked on a broken automaton, a mechanical man who is supposed to be able to write with a pen on his own.
The boy is still trying to make the automaton work and has saved his father’s notebook. One day, however, he’s caught stealing by an elderly toy-store owner (Ben Kingsley) at the station, who becomes visibly upset when he sees Hugo’s notebook…
3D is put to brilliant use
The elderly man turns out to be Georges Méliès, one of the great pioneers of cinema. The Lumiere brothers may have brought the cinématographe into worldwide attention, but it was Méliès who first realized the true potential of this device. The director of A Trip to the Moon (1902) invented some of the earliest visual effects, but became somewhat forgotten a few decades after his achievements. A true cineaste like Scorsese wouldn’t want us to repeat this mistake.
Méliès was a bold filmmaker, and so is Scorsese – even at a time when most critics and earnest film lovers are decrying the use of 3D, Marty chooses to employ the technology because he realizes that an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s inventive novel (which is richly illustrated by the author himself) might actually be served by it, especially if it’s done well. And it is – the 3D is put to brilliant use in the portrayal of a wintry, old-fashioned Paris, as well as in action sequences and a few character-oriented scenes, particularly one where Cohen’s face jumps out at us. Hugo is a visual pleasure, but it’s also a charmer for all ages. Butterfield is excellent as the boy who’s desperately holding onto the memory of his father, Cohen lends his station inspector a quirky sense of humor, and Kingsley is worth a look as both the young and old Méliès, living a dream that is laid to waste by war, and then trying to leave it all behind.
The movie is a Francophile’s dream with Dickensian overtones that turns into a love letter to the power of cinema, especially the silent days; there’s even a neatly assembled montage of clips from classic films, and symbolism from movies like Safety Last! (1923) works its way into the story in creative ways.
Nostalgia was widely celebrated in 2011, with the premieres of this film and The Artist. Sometimes criticized as self-indulgent and backwards, this look at the foundation of where motion pictures stand today may deserve those labels… but I can easily forgive that as long as the nostalgia is this impressively packaged.
Hugo 2011-U.S. 126 min. Color. Produced by Johnny Depp, Tim Headington, Graham King, Martin Scorsese. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay: John Logan. Novel: Brian Selznick (“The Invention of Hugo Cabret”). Cinematography: Robert Richardson. Music: Howard Shore. Production Design: Dante Ferretti. Cast: Ben Kingsley (Georges Méliès), Sacha Baron Cohen (Station Inspector), Asa Butterfield (Hugo Cabret), Chloë Grace Moretz, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer… Christopher Lee, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law.
Trivia: Scorsese appears as a photographer.
Oscars: Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing. BAFTA: Best Production Design, Sound. Golden Globe: Best Director.
Last word: “I just happen to be a great admirer of [3D], because when I first saw those View-Masters and the stereoscopic images, I was taken into another space as a child. And tapping into that imagination of a child, which is the same thing that I depend on and look for – whenever we make a film – has to be there every day, that thrill of the imagination, and somehow seeing those first 3D, stereoscopic images has that. I’m making my last connection to childhood imagination, it’s that feeling, and so I’ve been fascinated with 3D all my life. I don’t see any reason, if it’s used appropriately for the story, why not. You know, the same as colour or sound, widescreen, smallscreen.” (Scorsese, View London)