Movies: Hugo

Hugo (Asa Butterfield) watches his world from high up in a clock tower in a Paris train station.
Photo: Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures

It is most appropriate that this review of Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s venture into 3-D and children’s movies, be posted on Thanksgiving. You see, Hugo is a film for which people who love movies should be very thankful. In fact, even though adjectives like “wondrous, amazing, enchanting” came to mind, superlatives to describe the film seem to fail me.

From the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (yes, he’s related to David O. Selznick) and a script by John Logan, Scorsese takes us on a fantastical journey to 1930’s Paris (where, quite oddly, everyone has a British accent), where we spend most of the time in a large train station.

There we meet Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a lonely orphan whose father (Jude Law) suddenly followed his mother into death, leaving a very stunned little boy. After his father dies, Hugo is taken by his uncle (Ray Winstone) to live in the train station in a now-secret apartment originally built when the station was for the workers there. His uncle, one in the Cabret family’s long line of watchmakers, takes care of the clocks in the station. When he disappears, Hugo takes it upon himself to do the job.

When he’s not tending the clocks, Hugo is obsessed with restoring to working condition an automaton that his father had brought home. To do this, he takes parts from a toymaker (Ben Kingsley) who has a shop in the station. As the film opens he requires one more item to fully repair the automaton that, until that missing piece is found, sits frozen, pen in hand, ready to write what Hugo believes will be a message from his father. He needs to find the key to fit into the heart-shaped lock in the automaton’s frame.

He gets involved in an adventure with the toymaker’s goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) and meets the toymaker’s wife (Helen McCrory). He also repeatedly runs afoul of the train station’s inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his vicious Doberman. Hugo interacts with others in the station — flower seller Lisette (Emily Mortimer), an older couple (Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour) and a kindly bookseller (Christopher Lee).

When Hugo gets the automaton working it writes the name of Georges Méliès, a name that means nothing to him or his friend Isabelle but does to Martin Scorsese (and to students of film and those who have visited the Museum of the Moving Image in Long Island City, New York).

Georges Méliès was a magician in Paris who one day saw the marvelous invention of Auguste and Louis Lumière, the brothers who invented the what became the film projectors of today. Méliès began making movies and became very successful, known as a “cinemagician,” for his use of special effects. He made more than 500 films until he was forced into bankruptcy in 1913 by the American studios. During World War I his films were melted down to make boots heels for the French army. It was only in 1932, six years before his death, that he was again able to make films. He was presented with the Legion of Honor by Louis Lumiére.

Méliès’ most famous film was the 16-minute 1902 science fiction story, A Trip to the Moon, a movie that played a significant role in the life of Hugo’s father and that, through one of his many vivid dreams, Hugo knows, too.

A Trip to the Moon

Armed with the knowledge that George Méliès is, in fact, the toy store owner/Isabelle’s godfather, Hugo and Isabelle go in search of the answer to the mystery of why Georges Méliès is hiding from his own identity. They encounter a film historian (Michael Stulbarg) who tells them of Méliès’ greatness. They then confront Méliès who, like the automaton, is in need of care and repair. While the ending is no surprise, the road to that end is lovely and is worth traveling.

Hugo is a beautiful film to look at. The 3-D is wonderful and is cinematographer Robert Richardson’s valentine to Paris. It is also a lovely homage by Scorsese to his film making ancestors. He loves his art and the artists who made it.

Scorsese’s cast is first-rate. The children are lovely but, most important, can act. Kingsley gives a very touching performance and the comic relief belongs to Cohen. It is a perfect snapshot of a specific time and place.

Although it is being sold as a “children’s” film, at two hours, seven minutes, Hugo may be too long for some. But at the screening I attended there were audible gasps from adults and children alike at some of the 3-D effects. If you don’t have children you can bring, that’s fine. Just be absolutely sure to see it.

Hugo is one of many films being touted as the best of the year. It’s one of the few that deserves that accolade.