by Mel Valentin
The words “Martin Scorsese” and “family film” aren’t words critics or moviegoers would expect to see in the same sentence, but they accurately, if incompletely, describe Scorsese’s latest film, "Hugo," an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s 2008 Caldecott Medal-winning "The Invention of Hugo Cabret,' a historical children’s novel Selznick wrote and illustrated. At first glance, the period setting and the subject matter seem far outside Scorsese’s comfort zone (i.e., urban crime dramas), but Scorsese’s desire to adapt "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" gave him the opportunity to push the limits of his technical skills (i.e., working with 3D cameras, a first) and proselytize about a subject near and dear to his heart and, quite possibly, unspoken fears and anxieties about his place in film history as a master filmmaker (changing tastes three or four decades hence may change that evaluation).Set in early 1930s Paris, Hugo centers on Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a twelve-year old orphan who lives (and works) inside a train station (presumably the Montparnasse). Unbeknownst to the hostile, antagonistic station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), a wounded WWWI veteran, Hugo keeps the station's clocks running smoothly. As the son of a deceased clockmaker (Jude Law, seen briefly in flashbacks), Hugo shares his father's temperament (i.e., a desire to fix things, to keep things running) and his father's skills. Abandoned by his only living relative, an irresponsible, alcoholic uncle, Claude (Ray Winstone), Hugo makes do, snatching only as much food and milk necessary to survive. He's also on the lookout for gears, springs, and other mechanical gewgaws that could, in the right combination, help him repair, to rebuild, and ultimately resurrect a turn-of-the-20th-century automaton his late father found in a local museum.
"A love letter to cinema short on postage."
All of that, of course, is backstory we learn via expository dialogue or flashback. When Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), a stern, taciturn toy booth operator, catches Hugo attempting to lift a mechanical mouse from his shop, he threatens to turn Hugo over to the inspector. After forcing Hugo to empty his pockets and finding a notebook filled with drawings and equations (it once belonged to Hugo's father), Georges decides to keep the notebook. Unwilling to accept Georges unilateral decision to keep the notebook (Georges later claims he destroyed it), Hugo befriends Georges' precocious god-daughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), first to help him recover the notebook and later to help Hugo discover the automaton's secret, a secret Hugo imagines will bring him closer to his late father (he's actually expecting a message of some kind).
While Hugo initially follows a Dickensian template for Hugo's adventures and misadventures in and around the train station and the station's clocks, it's really an opportunity for Scorsese to both exercise and expand his technical skills as a filmmaker, beginning with an energetic tracking shot that literally descends from the night sky into and through the train station before settling on Hugo's eyes, peering out, unseen, from one of the station's clocks, followed by a lengthy tracking shot inside the clock tower and many more similarly impressive, immersive scenes aided by 3D cameras (no 3D post-conversion thankfully), Scorsese has another, grander (to him) project in mind for Hugo and it doesn't involve Hugo's personal and/or emotional journey and the Dickensian fate that awaits, or should await, all Dickensian heroes (i.e., a loving family).
Unfortunately, Hugo's personal journey takes a back seat to Scorsese's film preservation/film history obsession for the last thirty minutes of Hugo's running time. Once the active hero in his own story, Hugo becomes a supporting character in someone else's. Once a film historian, René Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), makes an appearance, Hugo becomes an extremely expensive love letter to early cinema in Europe and a polemic in favor of film preservation. Over the course of that half hour, Scorsese gives us a glimpse into turn-of-the-20th-century cinema, specifically the master illusionists and dream weavers (actually one in particular) who transformed the cinema from the mere recording of live events into elaborately choreographed, imaginative fantasies, of dreams made reel (if not real). At best, it’s superficially engaging, especially when the narrator reveals the sad, sorry fate of most of his films: destroyed for their base chemicals. Even sadder is the fate of the narrator: ignored and forgotten, forced to live in near-poverty, perpetually unappreciated.As stirring as Scorsese's lesson in film history and film preservation may be (and your mileage may vary, depending on the level and depth of your cinephilia), they fatally undermine "Hugo's" narrative structure, a structure that depends, or should depend, on character, conflict, and choice, but instead leaves poor Hugo to sit idly by for half an hour before he's roused from immobility for one last, contrived set piece, a set piece that sends Hugo back into the clock tower to engage in one last affectionate homage (this time to Harold Lloyd’s "Safety Last!") for Scorsese, and a pat, predictable feel-good ending that feels forced and unearned (because it is, sadly).
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=20626&reviewer=402
originally posted: 11/23/11 19:27:32