3.5 Stars out of 4
Hugo is a remarkable feat of celebrating the history and power of cinema while flying across a seemingly sweet kid’s adventure. It will absorb film lovers, and probably dazzle young children as they enter the fully realized and alive visual world of a master – Martin Scorsese. While its story might not reach the heights of a great Pixar film, Hugo – regardless – feels like an experience. An escape into a world that is its own visual splendour.
This world, dazzlingly adorned – somehow – by 3D, is 1930s Paris, the early era of talkies and thus when silent films were falling to deaf ears. It is the young orphan Hugo (Asa Butterfield) that is introduced, and adult audiences nostalgically return, to silent cinema where the art was born. It won’t be a spoiler to anyone who knows films that when Hugo is acquainted with an elderly and obstinate street vendor named Georges Méliès (played by Sir Ben Kingsley), the crabby old man – surely to be seen in kids’ eyes as only that – happens to be one of the pioneers of cinema.
This friendship, which of course starts off in distaste, is not the true joy of Hugo. It’s in Hugo’s adventure, one that springs surely from his own love of film, and his journey across a world that is its own divine cinematic spectacle. Hugo, who lives in a clock tower, is a spectator to the busy, dynamic, and beautiful Paris milieu. He quietly watches events unravel in the street as if they are their own silent episodes. The film – like its protagonist – is fascinated with looking, embodying the fantasizing curiosity of your classic film-going audience.
Best yet, Hugo is its own reflexive silent film, capturing a place that gloriously comes alive without a peep. The opening is a dandy, in which the camera tracks and tracks – a classic Scorsese motif – through all the characters, getting to know everyone by their expressions, and then ascending to the clock tower with Hugo, of course, staring out into the fantastical Paris space.
The supporting characters are all colorful: Georges’s plucky goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), his wife Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory, a little Lillian Gish in her), Hugo’s soused uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), flower girl Lisette (Emily Mortimer), and the playfully bossy and foolhardy Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen). Everyone here, troublesome or not, finds love whether it be in each other or in the art they have gone to see their whole life. Baron Cohen’s Gustav is especially funny, with his curled mustache and crippled leg that disrupts him at the worst moments. He’s got a thing against orphan thieves, and this leads to several chases between Gustav and Hugo that are admirably Chaplinesque.
Hugo will appeal to film geeks more in the second-half, where each scene tends to drop a reference to an inspired classic. I heard people behind me blurting out “Lillian Gish!” “A Trip to the Moon!”, “Safety Last!” and “the automaton!” – which of course was invented by Méliès and must have inspired the creation of the M-Machine in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The climax of the film offers a montage that demands tears of nostalgia, as it recounts the life of Méliès with such exuberant detail. I could personally relate to the arrival of French film historian René Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is probably one of the nicest and most credulous film critics of all time (well, there I cannot relate).
But Hugo is so endearing if you know enough about Scorsese. Never would I expect him to make a family epic in the stigmatic 3D, while making it so close and dear to his heart. The young Hugo is very reminiscent of the young Scorsese, who was raised in a New York apartment where he often looked out his window, soaking up all the little bits of business bustling about in the streets. Like Hugo, he went to the movies with his father often, where he experienced his dreams in the day (Hugo’s father is played briefly by Jude Law). I suspect back then he never expected he would make a movie in 3D, or be a master filmmaker for that matter.
Yes. Here is a director who has made some of the greatest films (Goodfellas, Raging Bull) and still wishes to bring happiness and a little more to mainstream audiences. You would think Scorsese is due for an Intervista, but he has chosen to commemorate those who have inspired him, and it shows. Hugo is an adventure that is alive, charming, elegant, and free. While it remembers cinema’s past, it also – through its own panache – brings hope to the future of this art. Hugo is not exactly about its adventure, but what creates one. Méliès would be proud. Thank you, Martin Scorsese.
Note: After Hugo, it is official that clock towers make for excellent spectacles in 3D. The spinning axels, dials, and mechanisms really come alive as they oscillate from the foreground to background. Francis Ford Coppola’s new film Twixt also makes great use of this illustration. It seems the masters of cinema, quite fittingly, are saving this much-abused medium. Maybe there is hope for 3D.
Did you really get all the references in Hugo? Read this article to find out – HERE