A Trip To The Movies, a review of Hugo (2011)
“My friends, I address you all tonight as you truly are; wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers, magicians…come and dream with me.”
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: John Logan (screenplay) Brian Selznick (book)
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloë Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen
(Minor spoilers ahead)
To me, Martin Scorsese has always had two distinct sides as a director. There’s the Catholic New Yorker who makes beautiful films about male testosterone in dangerous situations and then there’s the loving film buff, an entertainer from the golden age of Hollywood trying to make sweeping adventures for his audience.
Hugo belongs to the latter Scorsese. It’s a big, luscious movie that is beautiful to look at. But unlike his other genre flicks like Age of Innocence or Shutter Island, Hugo manages to feel like it’s as much from Scorsese’s own heart as Mean Streets or Taxi Driver (the comparisons stop there). This movie focuses on the great love of Scorsese’s life: film history.
The story is about Hugo Cabret, an orphan who, through tragic events, has found himself living inside the eleborate mechanical systems of clocks in a Paris train station. He spends his time winding the clocks and stealing parts from an old toy maker so he can repair an “automoton”, the last vestige of his life with his father. Hugo’s life becomes more complicated when Hugo and the toy maker’s niece, Isabelle, stumble onto secrets involving the automoton, Isabelle’s necklace and the suspicion that “Uncle George” may be more than he seems.
Despite the elaborate set, central mystery and goofy chase scenes that the movie boasts, it is essentially a very small and very moving story about Georges Méliès, an incredible filmmaker who was ruined by both the gears of history and the lack of effort to preserve his life’s work. Anyone who is fairly familiar with Scorsese will know why this subject is so dear to him. When he’s not directing, Scorsese has overseen the preservation, restoration and distribution of countless films that should not be forgotten. It is because of Scorsese that we can now see the work of Michael Powell, a brilliant filmmaker that history had all but forgotten. If you can, go and watch The Red Shoes.
Méliès’ films are truly magical, even now, and it is thrilling to see segments of them presented in Hugo. It’s this magic that Scorsese captures so heart-wrenchingly well and he uses it to illustrate the personal worth of preserving the work of the past. A sad fact of history is that many of Méliès’ films were burned, the celluloid melted down to make the soles of women’s shoes. The montage in which we see this happen is rendered so lovingly by Scorsese that I could feel people in the audience, many of whom probably never heard of Georges Méliès, instantly become film preservationists.
But the film is not all about the past, either. As you probably know, this film was made in 3D, a visual tool I have been more than cynical about for quite some time. I saw the film in 2D but actually found myself regretting that I hadn’t gone to see it in 3D. Leave it to Scorsese to take me to school on the subject. The chase scenes through the crowds, the intricate clockwork, I wanted to see them pop like they were intended to. I’ve called 3D technology a gimmick, and indeed it’s use has mostly been a shallow cash grab that does not benefit the films it’s used for, but that’s wrong-headed. 3D technology is just another brush in the artists toolbox, and it’s success depends on how we use it. Film itself was a new tool once upon a time. As shown in the movie, the Lumiere brothers once showed an audience a film of a train pulling into a station and for a moment the audience dove out of the way! I don’t know if that really happened but it’s a good story. They showed that very same footage in Hugo and I wished I had seen it in 3D , and maybe experienced a similar feeling as that audience, just for a moment.
The entire film is a love letter early film and it’s littered with clever references here and there. My favourite probably being the one shown on the poster itself, a callback to the masterful Harold Lloyd film Safety Last, which I encourage you to watch below. I haven’t really talked about the specifics of the film very much, I suppose because I was so caught up in it. Asa Butterfield and Chloë Moretz are both wonderful as the young stars stars of the film and handle the substance deftly, without too much melodrama. The flirtation between Sacha Baron Cohen’s self-conscious villain and Emily Mortimer’s cautious flower girl may have been the weak link in the film, but even that I enjoyed quite a bit. Though it’s Ben Kingsley who ultimately steals the show as Georges Méliès, with all his sadness, frustration and hidden wonder. I should also mention a brilliant turn by Michael Stuhlbarg as Rene Tabard, a film scholar and preservationist, perhaps standing in for Scorsese himself.
Ultimately Hugo is a beautiful experience, an ode to film magic, and to the magicians themselves.
(Ed. Note: Alan suggested I call the article “Hu-Go-Girl!”)