Our favorite in this season’s varied crop of family films is Hugo, director Martin Scorsese’s sumptuous 3D adaptation of Brian Selznick’s award-winning, best-selling novel, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”. At first glance, Hugo would seem to hail from Spielberg territory, so it takes until the final reel to understand why Scorsese chose to helm this captivating PG film. The film opens with an extended tracking shot that flies over the roofs of Paris and swoops down through a busy train station, signaling the technical proficiency of the celebrated director, and drawing the audience dramatically into the life of an intrepid child living between the walls of the Gare Montmartre. Hugo, orphaned after the death of his clockmaker father, has taken over for a drunken uncle, whose job it was to maintain all the clocks in the busy station; not even the nosy Station Master (a curious turn by Sasha Baron Cohen) knows a child is the one keeping the trains running on time.
Hugo spends his extra time repairing an automaton figure that his father was working on at the time of his death, but one day, while swiping the workings of a toy mouse from a toy shop, he is caught red-handed by the shop keeper, a brilliant and enigmatic Ben Kingsley. Kingsley finds the tattered notebook that Hugo’s father used to fathom the mystery of the automaton and a flash of recognition is borne. Hugo’s quest to unlock the mystery of his automaton leads him to unravel the mystery of the shopkeeper’s true identity.
Hugo is a loner, watching the world go by from the safety of his Hunchback-like perch above the train station. Much has been made of Scorsese working through his childhood demons in this story (as an asthmatic, he spent time isolated from other children) and in the end this is a very personal story that is pitched at the broadest possible audience. Everyone over seven will be caught up in it’s elegant storytelling. Visually, the film is stunning – from the incredible sets which are augmented by 3D technology, lending a story book moodiness that lets us know we are in the netherworld of make-believe and magic. Scorsese turns the station into a rollicking maze of wheels, slides and hidden compartments. While full of kinetic energy, the story unravels at an unhurried pace true to Selnick’s inspired book – a must-read for anyone who wants to pore over the simplicity of the original narrative – a novel told for the most part in line drawings.
Hugo’s companion in the tale is Isabelle, a plucky girl whose advanced vocabulary and sense of adventure spur Hugo on in his journey. Hugo sneaks her into a movie theater where they watch Harold Lloyd dangling on the clock in Safety Last and Charlie Chaplin riding a train gear in The General — Scorsese’s nod to two lions in the panoply of silent film greats. Grounded by the silent stars, Scorsese reveals Kingsley’s character to be a real figure from cinema history, and the loving attention focused on a recreation of the creative genius of George Méliès explains why Scorsese (whose passion is film preservation) chose to bring this story to life. In flashback, Kingsley plays the spirited writer-director-producer-actor at the height of his renown. It’s hard not to be struck by Méliès’ creative genius, and heart-breaking to see how desperate he has become by the time Hugo meets him.
And this is where Hugo’s ability to put things back together comes into play. The boy’s simple insight is that when people lose their purpose, they become broken. In putting the automaton back together, he fixes his friend Méliès, and he fixes himself. We promise you’ll leave the theater a bit more in touch with your dreams — for that is what cinema represents in this parable.
UPDATE: Although Martin Scorcese did not win a Best Director award at the Oscars, Hugo tied with The Artist with five golden statues, all technical, including cinematography and art direction.