I have a startling declaration to make. I am now 40 years old and a professed cinemaphile, and before today I had never seen a Martin Scorsese film. Not one. Zip. Nada. After watching this movie, I even went to IMDB to make sure I hadn’t accidentally seen one of his works before. Nope. The only Scorsese I had actually laid eyes on is Michael Jackson’s video for “Bad”, and that doesn’t count. Of course I have heard of his movies– who hasn’t?– but to be completely honest, none of his previous films caught my interest in any way. I guess I am guilty of sexist thinking in pegging them “boy movies”– films about thugs and brawling and street people and Howard Hughes. I knew Hugo was up for several Oscars, and won a good portion of the technical ones, but that was basically all I knew about it. So what you have here is a reviewer who is a complete blank slate, watching a movie on DVD without the bells and whistles of 3-D (I’m a 2-D holdout), in a darkened living room with her husband and 11-year-old stepson and some popcorn, who had no idea what she was about to watch, really.
I am a Scorsese convert.
The story is simple on the surface, but even with a run time of over two hours, not a frame of film is wasted. While the length might seem daunting for a movie which could be classed as a fable, it never seems bloated, just beautifully paced. The acting from the two child leads, Asa Butterfield as the title character and Chloe Grace Moretz as his friend Isabelle, is delightful– Butterfield can speak volumes with only his eyes, and Moretz always seems to thoroughly disappear into whatever role she is playing. They are ably backed by Ben Kingsley, Jude Law, Christopher Lee and Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat! Who knew he could actually act?) and the film is, of course, a visual treat even without 3-D, which is completely unnecessary to its enjoyment.
Hugo, set in 1931 Paris, focuses on a young boy whose father, a clockmaker, has recently been killed in a museum fire, leaving him in the care of his drunken uncle Claude, who is in charge of the clockworks at a busy train station. His uncle teaches him how to keep the clocks in order and promptly disappears, leaving Hugo, unsupervised and living hand to mouth behind the station walls, to his own devices. When the boy’s father (Law) passed away, he was trying to restore an automaton he found at the museum, and Hugo doggedly continues his father’s work, feeling a connection to his lost parent in doing so. He hopes the automaton, which appears to be one designed to write, will ultimately provide him with some kind of final message from his father, but he is lacking one crucial part to get it working again– an unusual heart-shaped key. When the owner of the train station’s toy booth, Georges Melies (Kingsley), catches Hugo stealing a clockwork mouse for parts he is naturally angry, but when he discovers Hugo’s notebook of diagrams relating to the automaton, he becomes mysteriously even more wrathful, demanding to know who drew the sketches and refusing to return the notebook– even presenting Hugo with a handkerchief full of ashes to make him think he burned the precious item. However, Georges’ goddaughter and ward Isabelle, an imaginative orphan girl about Hugo’s own age, informs Hugo that the ashes were a ruse and that Georges still has the notebook, which she promises to help him get back. The children become fast friends, each introducing the other to their favorite places– Isabelle’s is a bookshop and Hugo’s, the movie theater. It turns out that Isabelle has the heart-shaped key Hugo needs, and they discover that the automaton does not write, but rather, draws, and the picture it produces is an image from Hugo’s father’s favorite old movie, signed, curiously, with the name of Georges Melies. When Hugo shows the drawing to Georges’ wife Jeanne, she becomes quite upset and, hearing Georges returning, instructs the children to hide in an empty room until she can get Hugo out of the apartment without Georges learning he was there. The children discover a box of beautiful film sketches in an old armoire in the room, but Georges catches them in the act, and his heartbroken reaction is so unsettling that Hugo and Isabelle become determined to find out the reason. Learning of their interest in old movies, the bookshop’s kindly proprietor (Lee) directs them to a book about the dawn of cinema, from which they learn that Georges Melies was a prominent filmmaker in the early years of the century, but which erroneously states that Melies died in the Great War. The children inform the author, Rene Tabard, that Georges Melies is very much alive, and the writer is so delighted that the children arrange for him to go to Georges’ apartment to screen the only surviving print of a Melies film, which Tabard, an admirer of the filmmaker’s work, owns– the others have all been lost. However, fearing a negative reaction from Georges, they keep the proceedings a secret until Tabard shows up with film, projector, and Hugo at the Melies’ door. A depressed Georges is sleeping and unaware of his visitor, but Jeanne cannot resist the temptation to see the movie, in which she starred. Georges is awakened by the sound of the running projector, and at last reveals his story to the fascinated children. Originally a magician by trade, he got into the film business by building his own movie camera using parts salvaged from an automaton he had used in his magic act. When the Great War began, his fanciful movies were abandoned by an otherwise-occupied public, leaving him in financial ruin. One night, in despair, he even burned most of his studio props and even the film negatives he had not already sold for recycling to stay afloat– though the film in Tabard’s possession proves that not all of his sold celluloid had been melted down. He tells the children that he donated his old automaton to a local museum that burned, and was therefore lost too. Hugo, however, knows better, and excitedly runs back to the train station to fetch the automaton for what he hopes is the best surprise of all, but as he tries to exit the station with his treasure, he is caught by the station master (Cohen), who informs Hugo that Uncle Claude has been found dead and he must be remanded to the orphanage. Hugo escapes, but the automaton is dropped on the tracks in front of an oncoming train and Hugo jumps onto the tracks to save it. The station master rescues him, but demands to know if Hugo has anyone to claim him to keep him out of the orphanage. Georges, arriving on the scene, welcomes Hugo into his own family. Presenting Georges with the automaton, Hugo apologizes for its having gotten broken during the chase, but Georges tells him that it did just what it was supposed to do. Hugo has found a home and a family, and Georges finally regains recognition for his work. Eventually eighty of his films are recovered undestroyed, and Georges publicly honors Hugo at a celebration for the rediscovered movies.
Okay, so maybe the plot is a little complex, but as the movie unfolds, it doesn’t seem so. The narrative flows so well that every circumstance becomes an inevitability, which some reviewers have mistaken for predictability– there is a difference. Others have opined that the film drags out a thin story. This really isn’t the case– did the wall of text that was my summary look like a thin story? Yes, there are a few subplots which could have been cut for time, but each of them dovetails nicely with the central theme of “fixing what is broken.” For instance, the station master’s unrequited love for the flower seller does not feel tacked on, but rather enriches his character– we learn he is afraid to speak to her because his lame leg, the result of a war injury, makes him feel like an isolated, incomplete man, one who runs the station with an iron fist because he is compensating, and one who has literally forgotten how to smile. When he finally strikes up a conversation with his dream girl and learns that she, too, suffered because of the war– her brother was killed– we can see the inevitable path his character will take. It takes him awhile, as he maintains his stern demeanor up until the film’s epilogue, in which we see him attending the Melies film festival wearing an improved leg brace obviously designed by Hugo and with the flower seller, now his girlfriend, at his side, but this should be expected– he has a lot of “fixing” to do and it naturally wouldn’t happen overnight. His story alone would form the basis for an interesting movie; not bad for the character who is supposed to be the comic relief. Yet other viewers have complained that the film is boring at its core and serves only as a prop for Scorsese’s venture into the 3-D gimmick. I didn’t see it in 3-D and was completely enthralled, and I should add that my husband and stepson, both avowed Michael Bay fans, were as well. The camera work is amazing, and the film’s recreated wintry Paris of the past looks lush and real. There is plenty here to keep even a jaded viewer entertained. That is without even mentioning the performances, which were all remarkable to the smallest parts, unsurprising with the assemblage of talent both onscreen and off. Hugo is completely deserving of every award it has won– not the least of which is this reviewer’s heart. The SeriouslyFluffy Final Grade: A+