Very mild spoilers
I’ve always contended that a bad Martin Scorsese film is better than 90% of the other films being released today. We’re talking about the man behind the camera of cinematic masterpieces such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and The Departed to name but a few on a resume of cinematic brilliance that has spanned over 40 years. In what amounts to Scorsese’s love letter to cinema, his new film Hugo, he raises his already lofty bar to another level.
I admit to having some reservations when I initially viewed the trailer for this film. A 3-D kids adventure movie typically doesn’t get me all tingly inside. Had Scorsese’s name not been attached I likely would have written Hugo off as just another Golden Compass or some live action version of The Polar Express. But Marty has earned the benefit of the doubt with me, so I saw Hugo out of respect for a man that is simply one of the best ever at his craft. As a fan of movies, Scorsese films are essential, regardless of genre.
To reset the story as briefly as possible, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is about an orphaned boy who lives amongst the shadows and hidden tunnels within a 1930′s Paris train station. He had been a happy boy, living with his father (Jude Law), a clockmaker that taught Hugo the intricacies of the craft. Together they were working on restoring an old automaton that Hugo’s father had found in the museum. When his father dies suddenly in a fire, Hugo is forced to live with his drunkard Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), who teaches him how to manage the train station’s intricate clock system. When Uncle Claude vanishes, Hugo manages to keep up appearances by maintaining the clocks, keeping himself hidden within the station’s walls, surviving off of sheer will and stolen food from the local shops, determined to complete the work on the automaton knowing it is the only connection that remains between he and his father.
Obstacles present themselves in the form of a toy shop owner, Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley) and an overzealous station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). When caught trying to steal a mechanical toy from his shop, Melies forces Hugo to empty his pockets and turn over his goods, which includes the notebook he and his father kept regarding the automaton. Melies takes the notebook from Hugo and threatens to burn it, writing off Hugo’s pleas as nothing more than the whining of an immature thief.
Desperate to reacquire his notebook, Hugo follows Melies home where he catches the attention of Melies’ precocious young goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). Together, Hugo and Isabelle seek out answers to the automaton, while discovering that many other mysteries have yet to be unearthed.
Hugo feels like two films sandwiched together, yet like roast beef and mustard, they blend well. The first half is all about Hugo. This is where we are immersed into Hugo’s world and tag along with him on his adventures. At the midway section of the film, once we discover who Georges Melies actually is, the movie becomes something a bit different. Melies was a pioneer of modern day cinema and is credited as an innovator of special effects. Scorsese, an avid film historian, crafts a beautiful tapestry of visual storytelling, interweaving Hugo’s adventurous tome with a passionate love letter to the earliest days of moving pictures. While the direction of the film takes a distinct turn, it never feels interrupted or devoid of purpose. Scorsese takes great pains to showcase the wonderment of Melies’ works, splicing together well visioned scenes with his current cast with actual films from Melies that have been restored.
Young star Asa Butterfield is terrific as Hugo. In what is sure to be his breakout performance, Butterfield comfortably stands up with the bevy of star power present here. As for the film’s other young star, Chloe Grace Moretz, her celebrity has already blossomed thanks to standout performances in Kick-Ass and Let Me In. Moretz gives the role of Isabelle every ounce of charm and precociousness she can muster, and she is a treat to watch on screen.
Ben Kingsley is one of those actors that defies criticism. A master of method acting, Sir Ben gives a tremendous performance, shifting effortlessly between scary old man and a loving fatherly figure. There are parts you will hate him and parts you will love him, but damn it, you will always respect him.
Sacha Baron Cohen gives us something we haven’t seen before as the station inspector. Obsessed with ridding the station of “urchins”, the inspector is always on the lookout for trouble, his trusty Doberman always at his beckoned call. Cohen’s nuanced performance, meant to offer a level of comic relief, also plays off as sweet and sentimental, especially in his awkward encounters with his secret crush, Lisette (Emily Mortimer).
Other actors with less screen time but no less memorable performances were Helen McCrory as Melies’ wife, Mama Jeanne, Christopher Lee as the librarian, Monsieur Labisse, Jude Law as Hugo’s father and Michael Stuhlbarg as Melies historian Rene Tabard. Overall, this film couldn’t have been casted any better.
Hugo sells itself as a family movie, and at it’s core it is, but it should be noted that this isn’t a film that is likely to capture the undivided attention of younger children. Depending on the child, I’d say age 10-12 is probably a safe estimate in determining whether or not to bring the young ones. It’s certainly not due to the content of the film, as it is very benign and kid friendly, yet those who bring kids with attention deficit issues may be looking for ways to combat their fidgety nature halfway through the film.
While the film never seems to overstay it’s welcome, there are parts that simply crawl along at a snails pace. I like to look at these slower points in the film not as tedious plot points, but rather poignant moments of reflection and appreciation for the medium of film. Some will say that repeated plots centering around the station inspector’s schoolboy crush or the courting of two of the station’s patrons were unnecessary and a hindrance to moving forward. What they felt like to me were small homages to the very thing Hugo celebrates. Each sub-story just felt like a nod to the earliest films. The slapstick mannerisms of Cohen’s Inspector reeked of old Buster Keaton. The love stories had been told in countless silent films of the past. All of it felt intentional and I feel like it’s what Scorsese was going for. If that still doesn’t do it for you, the stunning visuals should be enough to distract you from any lapse in forward movement.
I have always been an outspoken detractor of 3-D. With the exception of Cameron’s Avatar or the intentional cheesiness of a film like Piranha 3-D, the concept has always felt like a cheap gimmick designed to do nothing but force you into handing over more of your hard earned shekels. Hugo is an exception, showcasing what can be done with the right visionary behind the lens. Much like Avatar, Hugo immerses you inside its onscreen world, forcing you to ride along on the journey wherever it may go. It is an absolutely stunning piece of cinema. How apropos that Scorsese uses this medium to convey his affection for one of the founding fathers of special effects.
I daresay that Scorsese has given us perhaps his greatest work to date. That can certainly be argued. Hugo likely won’t appeal to everyone. I certainly feel as if it is his most passionate and personal. A lover of cinema tasked to adapt a story that ultimately is about a love of cinema, Scorsese knocks this out of the park. If you consider yourself an avid fan of movies, Hugo is nothing short of a gratifying experience in what can come from a master who is given all the tools of his craft and told to create something special. If you are a casual fan of movies, suffice it to say there is probably enough here for you to at least enjoy yourself. For my money, Hugo is the best film of the year to date.
Hugo is out now in the US but doesn’t hit the UK till Dec. 2nd.
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