Hugo is a story of magic, but not in the Harry Potter fashion. There are no supernatural or even science fiction elements in Martin Scorsese’s new film (although the terrible marketing campaign might have led you to believe there was something like that going on). The film is a deeply felt, hugely personal, glorious and heart-swelling ode to the magic of cinema and stories. The way they bring us together, allow us to understand each other, allow us to see our dreams come true.
Ostensibly a children’s film, Hugo is really a movie for anyone who has a Pavlovian reaction to the sound of a movie projector. But to say that it only appeals to the cinephile is to discount the staggering mastery of Martin Scorsese, who has constructed a film that is beautiful and sweet and enormously touching. Yes, his love of the movies is at the center of Hugo, but his love of movies comes from something deeper and more universal: the desire to connect, to share, to create.
Hugo Cabret is an orphan who lives in the hidden tunnels and pipes of Gare Montparnesse, a busy Parisian train station. He winds the clocks and hides from the station inspector and looks out at the lives of the people who work in the station. Scorsese sets most of this up in an astonishing, perfect opening sequence that is largely without dialogue, using only the language of filmmaking to tell us who everyone is, what their relationships are, what the station looks like, and most of what we need to know about Hugo. The opening shot, which flies over Paris (which at first looks like a cog in a machine) then through the station, then up to the face of Hugo peering through the number 4 on a huge clockface, is breathtaking. Most other filmmakers would have fucked it up with an inane voice over - ‘My name is Hugo, and I live here behind the clocks’ - but Scorsese is no other filmmaker.
It’s a small story, filled with delightful and colorful characters. Hugo lives at the margins of society, stealing what he needs - which isn’t just food but gadgets and parts from a toy store in the station. Hugo is trying to repair an old writing automaton that his father was working on before his tragic death. The boy believes that when the automaton is working again it will contain one final message from his father. The gruff toy shop owner whose parts he pilfers catches Hugo in the act; he offers the boy a chance to improve his skills in the shop, but it soon becomes clear that there are strange connections between Hugo’s automaton and the shop owner.
The shop owner is Georges Méliès, a pioneer of the early cinema. He believes that his legacy is lost and that all of his films were melted down for boot heels during the Great War; sad and bitter, thinking his work forgotten, he tries to distance himself from his past as a dream maker. Sir Ben Kingsley is wonderful (and physically spot on) in the role. He’s convincingly grumpy in the early going, and as the plot moves forward he perfectly melts that exterior without becoming sticky or sappy. I cried three times during Hugo, one time as Méliès softly says “I would recognize the sound of a movie projector anywhere.” It’s a moment where Kingsley is offscreen, but his delivery is an incredible mix of sadness and rapture and love.
The other standout performance is from, believe it or not, Sacha Baron Cohen as the station investigator. An officious prick with a bum leg and one ever-present black glove, the station investigator begins the film as a bad guy, but we slowly learn about the loneliness and pain that informs who he is. There are no villains in Hugo, just people who are sad and wounded and alone - waiting to be brought together through cinema.
Cohen is hilarious; with a mixture of pratfalls and mugging and great timing on his line delivery, he brings the film’s best laughs. But he’s also deeply human, and the sadness of the inspector shows through in his every action. It would be easy for Cohen to make this character an unlikable buffoon, but it takes much more skill to make him an empathetic, redeemable fool.
Hugo himself is an interesting character. He’s passive, something of a peeping tom - voyeurism being, in many ways, the main trait of a cinephile (at least Brian De Palma would argue as much) - and he kind of cries a lot. Actor Asa Butterfield has incredible eyes, and Scorsese wisely relies on those, as Butterfield isn’t exactly the actor that his co-star Chloe Grace Moretz is. She plays Méliès’ goddaughter, a voracious reader with a huge vocabulary and a yearning for adventure. She gives Hugo companionship, he gives her a surreptitious viewing of Harold Lloyd in Safety Last (whose clock hanging scene is echoed later in the film, one of Scorsese’s many unobtrusive and wonderful homages to early cinema). Moretz is a delight, even with a slightly dodgy English accent (in the grand old film tradition, all of Scorsese’s French folk talk with English accents).
There are many other supporting characters, all colorful and played with gusto by great actors like Christopher Lee, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer and Harry Potter vets Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths. The world of the station is alive and vibrant, and Scorsese shoots the space in ways that emphasizes how Hugo sees it - huge, filled with passing people whose faces we rarely see. Most of the film takes place inside the station, but it’s a complete world with its own differing geography and provinces.
John Logan’s script is tight; everything that is set up at the beginning is nicely paid off by the end. There’s more than a little bit of on-the-nose dialogue (Méliès is verbally compared to the broken automaton numerous times, robbing the metaphor of any impact), but on-the-nose seems to be Logan’s thing. I love the way he puts big, flowery words in his characters’ mouths; there’s a lot of vocabulary in the film, much of it funny and delightful, which is something you can rarely say about movie dialogue.
But the hero of Hugo is Martin Scorsese. Showing not a day of his age, the director is nimble and playful and most of all effortless. His camera glides gracefully, and the film flows with a quiet dignity. Scorsese hasn’t stooped to making one of those kid movies where everybody is screaming all the time or where the characters suddenly, and for no good reason, end up in a roller coaster-like chase.
What’s more, his love of cinema shines through like a klieg light behind tracing paper. Scorsese has taken his love of classic filmmaking and applied it to how he approaches Hugo, indulging in big stretches of lovely visual storytelling. The movie itself is crammed with sly bits of film homage and history, but none of it feels stuffy or shoe-horned in. It’s a living love of cinema, and the works of Georges Méliès - the great magician of the silver screen - are presented to be as spectacular as they would have seemed to audiences of the time.
That’s where the 3D comes in. Hugo has the best use of 3D I have ever seen in a live action film; thank Scorsese’s masterly understanding of composition and storytelling, but also his joy with the gimmick of the effect. One of the themes of Hugo is that the movies allow us to visit our dreams in the afternoon, and the film worships the early special effects work of Méliès (flashback scenes to how Méliès staged his shots are delightful and fun and possibly the best part of the movie), so it makes sense that it would revel in the most immersive elements of 3D. Working with the great Robert Richardson, Scorsese creates scenes with thick layers of activity, shots with vertigo-inducing depth and moments of proscenium-busting excitement. Méliès used the tricks of his day to make magic, and Scorsese is using the tricks of his.
And Hugo does something else incredible - it post-converts Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, so that famous shot of the space capsule stuck in the Man in the Moon’s eye is 3D. I think Méliès himself would have heartily approved.
Richardson’s work on the film is wonderful beyond the 3D. The entire movie has a faint painterly feeling, a touch of slightly heightened reality. The palette is luscious, with crisp golden colors and deep, enveloping blacks. The 3D doesn’t interfere at all, and in fact the entire film looks like it was designed with the darkening effect of the glasses in mind. Finally, someone took that into account.
It’s not a stretch to think that Hugo is one of Martin Scorsese’s most personal films. A sickly, lonely child, Scorsese found release and human connection at the movies. Hugo himself is the same way, a boy who experiences life at a distance, all alone in the gears of the machines. The movies are part of who he is, to the point that when he sinks into memories of his father we hear the flicker of the movie projector. This boy might one day grow up to be a great director himself.
I was enthralled with Hugo from beginning to end. It’s a great film, one that is big hearted and loving and joyful. It isn’t afraid of wearing its heart on its sleeve, of being wide-eyed and hopeful. There isn’t a cynical moment in this movie, and Scorsese hasn’t made it to appeal to anyone but himself. As a result he’s made a true work of art, a movie that glorifies the movies and the ways they bring us happiness, love and community.