HugoReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/23/11 12:31:34
When it was first announced that the next film from Martin Scorsese, the man who has long been anointed as America's Finest Filmmaker, was going to be a an adaptation of the acclaimed children's book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," many observers reacted to the news as if it were some kind of bizarre joke. After all, while Scorsese has long proclaimed that his own fascination with the cinema began when he was a small child, there was precious little in his filmography that one could actually show to the tykes without either boring or scarring the majority of them for life. Not only that, the story promised to be the kind of elaborate fantasy piece that required someone with a flair for presenting lavish special-effects tableaus--not exactly the kind of spectacles that are part of his celebrated bag of tricks--and the further development that he would be shooting it in 3D, a move perceived as being just another attempt to follow in the massively successful footsteps of "Avatar," served as a further cause for alarm. In the hands of someone like Steven Spielberg or Terry Gilliam, such a project would be awaited with bated breath by every film fan worth his or her salt but coming from someone like Scorsese, even his greatest admirers found themselves regarding it as a giant question mark at best and a potentially massive disaster at worst.Those fans will be relieved to know that "Hugo,"as it has now been dubbed, is neither a question mark nor a disaster. In fact, it is not even really a family film in the traditional sense of the word. What it is, in fact, is a Martin Scorsese film through and through and aside from the fact that the profanity count is close to nil and that the short person running around does not eventually wind up getting whacked in a rec room or buried alive in a cornfield, it still burns with the passion and intensity that has made his work so distinctive, not to mention the joy that he still gets in celebrating and paying homage to the art form that he has dedicated his life's work to pursuing. This time around, he goes back to its earliest days and presents us with a film that somehow works both as a love letter to the joys to be derived from the cinema, as spectator and creator alike, and as a marvelously engrossing and high-spirited adventure that is as enchanting as any of the "Harry Potter" movies and may be even more so because the magic that it is dealing with is the kind that still has the power to enchant and amaze even after all of its secrets appear to have been revealed.
Set in 1931, the film takes place largely within the confines of Paris' Montparnasse train station and concerns a little boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who literally lives within its walls. Like so many little boys in stories of this sort, Hugo has faced enormous tragedy at an early age. Once upon a time, he was a happy young lad who lived with his clockmaker father (Jude Law) and worked alongside him as he attempted to rebuild a mysterious automaton--a mechanical contraption designed to look like a person--that he discovered stashed away and unwanted in the museum where he worked a second job. Thanks to their combined skill and ingenuity, the contraption was nearly restored but before the restoration could be completed, a terrible accident at the museum took Hugo's father's life and left him the hands of his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone), who lives in a long-forgotten apartment above the train station and who works at making sure that the station's elaborate clocks keep on ticking. Alas, the uncle has been missing for a long time and Hugo himself is secretly maintaining the clocks while trying to survive and avoid being caught by the station's chief inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), a goof with a mangled leg, zero personality skills and a grim determination to ensure that any stray kids that falls into his grasp goes straight to the orphanage if they commit even the most minor of transgressions. In his spare time, Hugo occasionally raids the decrepit little toy shop run by the tired and bitter Monsieur Melies (Ben Kingsley) for spare parts and gears that he can use to help restore the automaton.
One day, while Hugo is trying to snare some more parts, he is caught by Mr. Melies and when he is forced to turn out his pockets for the old man, he reveals a notebook filled with diagrams and specs regarding the automaton that his father made. For some reason, this discovery shocks Melies and he not only refuses to return the notebook but vows to burn it that very night, even after Hugo follows him out into the wintry night in the hopes of changing his mind. His appeals fail to register with Melies but Hugo's plight does attract the interest of his young goddaughter, the spunky and inquisitive Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) and she promises to rescue the book for him. When the two meet the next day, she tells Hugo that not only did her godfather not burn the book, it seemed to upset him and his wife (Helen McCory) quite deeply. Needless to say, Hugo and Isabelle decide to delve deeper into uncovering the mystery, one that grows even more complex when it turns out that not only does Isabelle possess the key that makes the automaton run but when it does, it displays an even more inexplicable connection to the old man that may reveal who he once was and what made him what he is now.
For those of you with a certain knowledge about the history of the cinema, the name "Melies" may ring a bell or two and as it turns out, the old man turns out to be George Melies, one of the earliest pioneers of motion pictures and it is at this point that "Hugo" transforms from being merely an engaging children's story into a grand tribute to the formative years of the film industry from one of its most celebrated practitioners. As the story reveals Melies backstory and his connection to the automaton, Scorsese offers up a history lesson on silent film that combines clips from some of its most famous images with recreations of how Melies achieved his then-revolutionary and still-impressive visual effects. He even manages to work in a firm but gentle plea for the importance of his pet cause of film preservation. On the surface, this may sound like it would only appeal to film fanatics of a certain age and certainly not anything that most kids would go for but Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan approach the material in such a magical and wide-eyed manner that it is virtually impossible to not get swept up in the mystery and magic on display. At a time when it appears that the notion of film being run through a projector and beamed upon a screen, even in the meager multiplex form that audiences have been forced to get used to in recent years, is being pushed aside for the cheaper and more convenient digital formats, "Hugo" serves as a stirring reminder of just how glorious and transformative the simple experience of seeing a film under the optimum conditions can be. At one point, when Melies is reunited with the work that he himself had assumed was lost and forgotten, he quietly remarks "I would recognize the sound of a movie projector anywhere," it is a notion that anyone who has ever fallen in love with the movies will instantly take to heart.
On the other hand, while movie buffs will obviously be the ones who will take the most from "Hugo," viewers with no particular grasp on the history of the cinema will find much to love here as well. Working from the Brian Selznick book (which, believe it or not, is based to a certain degree on real elements--Melies was a film pioneer who lost everything and worked in a toy store in Montparnasse until he and his films were rediscovered by a couple of cinema fanatics and he also apparently did build an automaton at some point), Scorsese and Logan have a fascinating tale to tell and do so without either dumbing things down in order to make them palatable to little kids (or, more often, their more easily abashed parents) or rushing them along in order to keep up with the frantic pacing that they have grown used to over the years. Instead, the film presents a lavish environment in which everything from the largest clocks to the tiniest gears to the freshest croissants are presented in a manner that heightens the reality without making things cartoonish in the way that one might picture the events in their mind while reading them. Adding immensely to this effect is the immaculate 3D photography by longtime Scorsese collaborator Robert Richardson, which is easily the finest example of the format to come along since "Avatar." While there are a couple of moments in which Scorsese cannot resist indulging in the essential silliness of the format by gleefully tossing a sword or two in front of the camera, he is more interested in using the format to both give extra detail to the intricacies of the enormous clockworks that Hugo live among and to properly illustrate the intricate multiple layers of trickery devised by Melies to pull off his movie magic. Under normal circumstances, this would be the point where I would urge you to catch a 3D film in 2D if possible in order to save yourself both a few bucks and a headache but in the case of "Hugo," this is a film that absolutely must be experienced in 3D in order to get the full impact of what Scorsese has created.
The performances across the board are impressive as well. Relative newcomer Butterfield is a real find in the title role and Moretz, who has already gained a lot of acclaim over the last few years in such films as "Kick-Ass" and "Let Me In" solidifies her reputation as one of the most impressive young actresses working today (and will no doubt inspire numerous crushes to boot). Among the vets, Ben Kingsley gives one of his very best performances as Melies and proves once again that when given decent material, he can be one of our strongest actors. The supporting cast is filled with plenty of familiar faces, the best of the bunch being the legendary Christopher Lee as a librarian who helps Hugo and Isabelle on their quest while instilling a love of books in them as well. Hell, even Sacha Baron Cohen, a performer whom I have not always sparked to in the past, is a gem as the goofy inspector with a performance that essentially represents the entire history of silent film comedy in only a few scenes and even he gets a moment or two of grace for his troubles in the end."Hugo" is a masterpiece, one of the very best films of the year and as personal and deeply felt as anything that Martin Scorsese has ever done. The question, though, is whether enough people will make the time and effort to check it out during a holiday season that is already jam-packed with family-oriented films of an unusually high quality. and whether they will spark to its odd and not easily summarized charms. I am no box-office prognosticator so I cannot really offer any guesses towards its potential financial success except to note that even it does fail to make it in a crammed marketplace, that would only mean that it would join the company of such august companions as "The Wizard of Oz," "The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T," "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" and "Babe: Pig in the City" as family films that failed to make much of an impact during their initial release but would later go on to become beloved classics. As for whether younger viewers will be interested in a film celebrating an art form that has been gone for nearly a century, all I can say is that for the ones who are bright and inquisitive and who like stories that engage rather than assault, they may well adore it and even develop an interest in cinema history as a result. Who knows--perhaps the next Georges Melies or Martin Scorsese will be among them and perhaps they will one day conjure up something as wonderful as "Hugo."
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