Image source. Copyright Paramount Pictures, 2011.
No matter who you are, Hugo charms you. For those who shudder at the mere sound of “silent film,” Hugo provides a gentle, illuminating first glimpse into that era’s magical splendor. For the Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd movie geek, Hugo unrolls like your favorite Thanksgiving meal – warm, familiar, and oh so sweet. And for the average moviegoer, Hugo still offers solid thrills, a moving plotline, and a host of delicious cinematic visuals. Add some solid work by Sacha Baron Cohen and Ben Kingsley to the mix, and you’ve got a paean to the movies for the ages.
Hugo takes its story from Brian Selznick’s Caldecott-winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a book every bit as breathtaking and spellbinding as the movie. A 12-year old orphan who literally lives in the gutters of the Paris train station, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) can’t claim to have a particularly adventurous life. It’s an extended routine of survival against the odds: wake up, steal food from the shop owners, wind the clocks, sleep. Above all, avoid the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his prowling canine partner. The only thing that gives Hugo any joy is trying to fix a broken automaton his father (Jude Law) left him before dying in a fire. Since he doesn’t have the necessary parts, he steals, little by little, all the things he needs from the aging, reclusive curmudgeon who runs the station’s toy store (Ben Kingsley). One day, however, Hugo gets caught in the act; the next thing he knows, he’s been forced into working for the old man, lest his precious automaton blueprints find themselves burnt to ashes.
The next part of the movie takes Hugo, his adventurous companion Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), and the viewer on a journey of discovery through the long-forgotten annals of early film history. “Papa Georges,” erstwhile a cold, heartless toy store owner, turns out to be the long-lost progenitor of the silent film era, Georges Méliès. Hugo and Isabelle’s innocent surprise mirrors our shock and joy: this guy single-handedly jump-started the entire filmmaking industry? This crux and the slow, glorious way it unfolds are what make Hugo such an extraordinary experience. Let go of all you think you know about movies, Scorsese tells us. Enter the mind of an artist where the sky was just the start, where literally going to the moon and back was just a warm-up act. See Harold Lloyd dangle from a clock, skeletons do a jig, a train crash through the clock in the Paris train station. This is the moment when impossible fantasy literally became real. Scorsese guides these scenes with such grace and passion that it’s impossible not to see how much he loves the movies. After watching Hugo’s journey, you will too.
The rest of the film offers a solid, if at times rigid, background setup to the wonders at the movie’s center. The station inspector in the original book could have been Inspector Javert’s long-lost twin. In the movie, however, thanks to Sacha Baron Cohen’s perfect comical timing, he serves a good turn as the awkward, adorable, and hilarious foil to Hugo and Isabelle’s childlike quest of wonder. The other changes from the novel – the various romantic subplots, the stern-looking but surprisingly warm bookstore owner – serve as amusing side dishes to the grand main course. And Ben Kingsley is marvelous as the old, forgotten film genius struggling to move on from the glory days of his past.
The only weakness in this fantastical adventure lies in the acting of the child leads. Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz both sometimes look like they’re being forced to regurgitate lines, with only half-hearted attempts at capturing any emotions. The way Moretz says things like “This sounds like an adventure,” she can’t wait to finish filming the scene and get the hell out of 1930s Paris. For that matter, shame on the screenwriter for making such painfully banal dialogue like “This sounds like an adventure” in the first place.
But the weakness of some of the acting doesn’t detract from the overall feel of this wonderful movie. In fact, Butterfield and Moretz’s un-subtlety might be just the childish touch the film needs. The sheer splendor and pure bliss of discovering the early history of the movies will leave even the most seasoned viewer feeling like an awestruck baby, gasping in “Ooh”s and “Aah”s at Méliès’ – and Scorsese’s – effortless magic. Watching that rocket hit the man in the moon makes you want to stand up and cheer. Forget your real-world woes, the problems racking our society. Take a step into the mystical realm of your dreams, a Neverland full of dragons, princesses, rockets, mermaids, and fantastical beauty. Over 100 years ago, Méliès enchanted France and the world with his imaginary worlds. With Hugo, Scorsese comes closer than anyone else to capturing the pure glory of that joyful beginning.
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen
Running Time: 126 minutes
Produced by: Graham King, Tim Headington, Martin Scorsese, Johnny Depp
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: John Logan
Based on Brian Selznick’s 2008 novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret.