Directed by Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by John Logan
Ben Kingsley as Georges Méliès
Sacha Baron Cohen as Station inspector
Asa Butterfield as Hugo Cabret
Chloë Grace Moretz as Isabelle
Ray Winstone as Uncle Claude
Emily Mortimer as Lisette
Christopher Lee as Monsieur Labisse
How long is Hugo? 127 minutes.
What is Hugo rated? PG for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking.
The Joy Of Creation: Scorsese Reminds Audiences that Movies Are Dreams Come To Life in ‘Hugo’
Blaming Home Alone for the past two decades of truly terrible family-friendly movies is probably unfair, though not entirely off base. During the 1980s, kids movies like Return to Oz, Labyrinth, and even The Goonies (not the biggest fan of that one) featured children who acted like kids going on adventures and solving their predicaments with childlike wonder and enthusiasm. Home Alone changed the landscape, and subsequent films featured the child star as smarter and/or more mature than the adult villains, saving the day with extreme amounts of cartoon violence and product placement. This tendency continued throughout the subsequent decade, but thanks to Shrek, these movies got to add already out-of-date pop culture references to their repertoire.
However, a change has started to happen, and we probably have Pixar to thank for beginning to remind us that a double entendre amidst hit-in-the-balls jokes does not make a child’s movie suitable for adults. Over the past several years, kids movies have started to grow up. These don’t make the majority of the genre, but they far and away make up the best of it. Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson, primarily R-rated directors, temporarily switched focus to PG fare and created Where The Wild Things Are and The Fantastic Mr. Fox; both incredible films that relished the opportunity to create new worlds and did not dumb down their content to appeal to all audiences. With Hugo, Martin Scorsese continues this new tradition.
Oddly enough, what Scorsese, Anderson, and Jonze have done in their respective works is return the innocence to children films. Innocence does not mean empty, fluffy, or devoid of dark or challenging material. Like the greatest films, the best family films do not need to shy away from difficult topics. What innocence refers to in this context is eliminating most of the peripheral baggage and viewing upsetting, tragic elements through the simplicity of a child’s eyes, without snarkiness, cynicism, or farts. These movies remember that kids (well some kids) are not just consumers, but human beings with their own values, emotions, and questions, which often complement those of adults.
Set in France after The Great War, Hugo stars Asa Butterfield (who looks like he came from a much earlier era, much like the rest of the movie) as Hugo Cabret, an orphan who secretly lives in a train station, sets its clocks, and steals stuff to survive while avoiding the cruel Station Master (Sacha Baron Cohen). Combine these elements with Hugo’s secret passageways throughout the station that allow him to spy through numbers in the clocks, and it’s a perfect setup for a darker children’s tale.
Hugo’s most prized possession is an automaton, consisting primarily of clockwork and gears, that his doting father/clockmaker (Jude Law) discovered in a museum before his untimely death. Since the robot is the only item he has left from his father, Hugo diligently works on it, and he seems both emotionally attached to and scientifically detached from the device, which cannot function without a heart-shaped key.
Due to his pilfering habits, Hugo also runs afoul of Papa George (Ben Kingsley), a miserable man who operates a toy shop in the station. However, his granddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moritz who between this film, Kick-Ass, and Let Me In proves herself as a remarkably talented young actor) takes a liking to him. The film wisely avoids any romantic insinuations between the two, keeping their relationship as friendship and co-adventurers, without forcing any modern (or postmodern) complexities or nuances. Along the way, they (along with help from film scholar Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg of A Serious Man and Boardwalk Empire)) learn about the truth behind Papa George’s past and his contributions to the early days of film.
A visually outstanding film (worth the price of 3D), Hugo is a love letter to imagination and invention, the thrill of books and movies, of discovering things for yourself and the freedom to do so. Cogs of various sizes occupy many scenes, and seeing Hugo hammer a shell into shape or figuring out how one piece of the automaton fits into another shows off the pleasure of actual creation.
It’s about the joy of tinkering with your hands rather than rendering on a computer, building rather than coding. Sure, Hugo uses computer effects, but a lot of the film seems to utilize practical effects, models, incredible set design, and color schemes to form its universe (and Hugo has developed its own world, simultaneously imposing, confusing, and fascinating). Even side characters have distinct looks, and Scorsese knows when to let scenes play out naturally or when to cut them in the style of a silent movie. To the best of my knowledge, it is unlike anything that Martin Scorsese has ever done before (it looks more like a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film than a Scorsese one), and for those less than enthusiastic about the director’s recent offerings, Hugo can re-excite you about the filmmaker again.
Although not as cerebral as Where the Wild Things Are, Hugo also displays an honesty in emotion. Sadness pervades the film and many of its characters, but never becomes overwhelming. Hugo, George, and the Station Master do not wear their hearts on their sleeves, but when facades crack (and they only “crack,” never completely collapse), the scenes are not overdone. People don’t cry to the heavens, they subdue themselves or the film cuts away.
Admittedly, I’m not a fan of looking for directors’ autobiographical elements in their films, not the least because it’s impossible for an outsider to distinguish between the persona and the person. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to see both Hugo and Papa George as quasi-avatars of Scorsese himself. Very few filmmakers love movies as much as he does, and with Hugo you truly get a sense of just how much Scorsese appreciates the magic of all elements of cinema. Although Hugo is not his best film or his best-written or best-plotted movie, it’s difficult to imagine anything else in his oeuvre that captures his passion as well as this one does.
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