‘Hugo’ is a big-budget 3-D family film with Dickensian overtones from master filmmaker Martin Scorsese. Yes, the same Scorsese who brought us ‘Raging Bull’, ‘Goodfellas’, and ‘The Departed’. This is the first Scorsese film without Leonardo DiCaprio in 7 years, and his first PG-rated film in 18 years. The theatrical trailer for this film left me wondering what in God’s name Scorsese was thinking, but I should have known better than to doubt a master filmmaker – ‘Hugo’ is one of the year’s best films.
It’s the 1930’s, and the title character (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan living in the clocks of a Paris train station. He steals food when he’s not maintaining the station’s enormous clocks. What makes his escapades a challenge is the presence of the station inspector (and his Doberman), played by Sasha Baron Cohen. Hugo also steals mechanical parts from a toy store owner (Ben Kingsley) in an attempt to fix an automaton, which he believes to contain a message from his late father. The toy store owner’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz looking like a miniature star from that era) is then introduced to Hugo’s world, and his to hers. She is his first true friend yearning for the adventures Hugo gets to live but she only reads about in library books.
A number of characters in the film are craftsmen. Both Hugo and his father have a knack for assembling and repairing mechanical objects. There is also a magician turned filmmaker whose magic transfers gracefully from the stage to the screen. This character constructs a movie studio, which consists of elaborate production sets. We learn that this filmmaker was responsible for the 1896 silent film ‘L’arrivee D’un Train a La Ciotat’ (film history buffs will know I’m referring to George Melies). As silent films shifted over to sound films, Melies work as a filmmaker was dismissed to the extent that they were burned and converted into material for women’s shoes (this scene had me reaching for my Kleenex). However, one film remained unburned – ‘Le Voyage Dans La Lune’ from 1901. The second half of ‘Hugo’ shows the filmmaker’s fall from his glory days, and how the title character tries to fix this broken person by proving that he hasn’t been forgotten. In doing so, ‘Hugo’ has shown us filmmaking at its genesis as well as the importance of the preservation of film.
Ironically, this movie about the early days of filmmaking is presented in 3-D. However, unlike most films that are converted post-production, this entire project was conceived with an added dimension and is part of Scorsese’s visual aesthetic. As close friends of mine know, I am not a fan of this medium. To me, it exists solely as a gimmick to charge audiences a premium for an inferior viewing experience. My thoughts on the subject are a little more optimistic having seen ‘Hugo’. This is by far the best use of 3-D, supplanting James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’, which was the film that caused the upsurge of 3-D. The added dimension is used to create an immersive experience and the lighting is adequate enough for the viewer to derive detail from scenes in dim settings. Hugo’ opens with a helicopter shot of Paris, as the camera shoots in from above and ends with Hugo peeking out of the opening of a clock in the upper-level of the station. It’s these breathtaking visuals that remind the viewer that this is a Scorsese film. While the material is unlike anything Scorsese has ever done, his creativity and visual intelligence remains strong.
‘Hugo’ is a movie about movies that will play better to adults than kids. I noticed several kids in my screenings shifting in their seats due to film’s deliberate pacing. Cinephiles will be in for a treat, though no knowledge of silent films or film history is necessary to enjoy this picture. This is Scorsese’s love letter to the films of the early 1900s and its worthy of a Best Picture nomination and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Ben Kingsley. With wonderful source material and featuring perfect performances, Scorsese has crafted a film that is delightful, charming, entertaining, and a reminder to most of us about why we love going to the movies.
– Jerry Nadarajah