Film review by: Witney Seibold
Martin Scorsese‘s “Hugo” is a glorious and loving polemic about the magic of movies. We’ve heard plenty of marketing gurus chat endlessly about “capturing the imagination” and “making dreams come true,” but Scorsese seems to transcend the dry aphorisms be tapping into the actual process. This is a film about how movies really can seem like dreams. How the actual, physical mechanical processes of the film are just as magical as the images. How making movies can be an ecstatic experience. This is a film that film-lovers, film archivists, the people who obsess joyously about the very form of cinema will adore.
Scorsese, who notoriously built an entire city for his “Gangs of New York,” sticks with mostly brightly-lit and ultra-sharp CGI images for this film, making look unlike any other Scorsese movie. The rawness and immediacy are gone in favor of a shiny and slick fantasy landscape of oranges and blues. His Paris of the late 1920s does not seek, I think to offer a genuine verisimilitude of documentary fact, but a kind of cinema-heightened fictional version of the place. The fact that he shot in 3-D stresses the artificiality of the images. But then, Scorsese is making a movie about the glorious fantasy of movies, so it’s kind of fitting that it feels like a fable.
The story follows a young boy named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the walls of Paris’ grand central station. His mother dies long ago, and his father (Jude Law) was recently killed in an explosion. His drunken uncle has gone missing, and he dutifully attends the station’s clocks (an important fixture in a train station), and ducks the Dickensian machinations of the vaguely evil station policeman (Sacha Baron-Cohen) who would take him away to an orphanage. Hugo is a master tinkerer, and is adept at fixing all manner of clockwork devices (his father was a clockmaker). His one passion is repairing a robot automaton that he salvaged from his father’s workshop. He steals the parts he needs from the cantankerous toymaker (Ben Kingsley) who keeps a shop at the station.
The toymaker, by the way, is actually Georges Méliès, a name that will have significance to film aficionados. Méliès is the creator of some of the earliest fantasy films, including the famed “A Trip to the Moon” (1902). His work in special effects and his passion for oddball material has begun some filmic trends that persist to this day. Little Hugo thinks of his as some cranky old man, and chooses instead to forge a friendship with his goddaughter Isabelle (an energetic Chloë Grace Moretz), who is rich, lively, and obsessed with books. How Hugo discovers George’s identity and what happened to his films is something I will leave for you to discover, to to research, if you’re into cinema history.
I was charmed by this film. I liked its weird energy, and I liked that Scorsese’s usual idiom of a somewhat chaotic story that goes in many directions at once was in tact. And, of course, I loved its unabashed, unashamed, untainted cinephilia. The handling of film and projectors, this movie seems to say, is a sacred act that unlocks dreams. Each film is a cog in your subconscious waiting to start turning. Only a long-time film director like Martin Scorsese, obsessed with film restoration and resuscitating classics, could have made a film like “Hugo.” The images of churning clockwork and ticking pendulums lend a kind of comforting metronome rhythm to the film, and the young actors never strayed into the obnoxious moppet-hood of so many Hollywood films. There were even some genuinely scary moments, including a terrifying dream sequence which I will not here describe.
I worry, though, that kids unfamiliar with the book on which the film is based will be kind of put off by the film. They might be alienated by the old-time setting, the reference to silent movies, and the scary threats of orphanhood. Something tells me that the film will be well-reviewed by film-loving critics (as this one did), but only passively absorbed by mainstream audiences. In its heart, it’s a grad celebr4ation of the movies. On the surface, it’s a weird period piece that some may find too strange. It’s destined, I think, to remain an oddity in Scorsese’s canon.
I suppose if one young child sees “Hugo” and suddenly becomes more interested in reading old book, watching old movies, and becomes drawn increasingly toward the machinations of the world of cinema, then Scorsese will have done his job. He’ll have introduced someone to the magic. I hope that kid is out there.