Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: John Logan (screenplay), Brian Selznick (novel)
Stars: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen
Release date: November 23rd, 2011
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Running time: 126 minutes
Best part: Scorsese’s direction.
Worst part: The distracting side stories.
With the laundry list of classic films to his credit, Martin Scorsese would seem like a perfect choice to direct both a charming kids film and a subtle homage to the origin of cinema. He has pulled this off with Hugo, a slapstick filled, heart-warming adventure perfect for the family.
The adventures of Hugo Cabaret (Asa Butterfield) start out in Montparnasse Railway Station in Paris. Using the station as his home, he navigates his way around in perfect precision; dodging the wacky but vicious handicapped station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), stealing from shop owners and changing the clocks in the station everyday. After being caught stealing by miserable toy shop owner George (Ben Kingsley), he not only forms an uneasy truce with him but creates a bond with his god-daughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). Their bond is brought together by their love of storytelling and the longing for excitement. In their discoveries, involving the history of film, they find that there is more to the grumpy George than they ever could have imagined.
Based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabaret by Brian Sleznik, the film perfectly captures the imagination of a child exploring this world. A comfortable look of 1930’s Paris created by constant panning and tracking shots of the station, its zany companions, a mostly up beat piano and accordion based score and a fun assortment of slapstick gags and supporting characters create a living, breathing setting to Hugo. Despite the consistently funny gags and an ever charming cast, some of the characters, such as Hugo’s father (Jude Law), kind book store owner Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee) and Hugo’s caretaker Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) sadly get short shrift. The short stories involving the supporting characters tend to slow the film down and fail to end with a satisfying payoff. The story of Hugo and Isabelle discovering film history is the most beguiling aspect of the story. Despite the film’s slow first half, describing Hugo’s love for an automaton left to him after the death of his father, the second half picks up, subtly cross cutting classic film references together with their discoveries as we follow a race through a time in film history. Hugo is a delight for film buffs and the wider audience alike. Scorsese’s style, of consistently immersive 3D effects and CGI backgrounds mixed in with simple overlapping editing effects and stop motion animation, illustrates the importance of technological achievements throughout film history.
“My life has taught me one lesson, Hugo Cabret, and not the one I thought it would. Happy endings only happen in the movies.” (Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley), Hugo).
References are consistent as we see the first films and how they captured the imaginations of the early film going audiences. Scenes describing the effect of Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat and the clock hand sequence from Safety Last!, delicately illustrate the origin and illusion of cinema to a modern audience. References to Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, the Lumiere Brothers and to a greater extent George Melies are also peppered throughout this film as modern technology and Hugo’s love of cinema explain their significance in film history. The second half of the film is a delight as we see the rise and fall story of the first formalist director, George Melies. Scorsese’s re-creations of Melies’ efficient editing techniques and extravagant set and costume designs light up the screen. Scorsese’s vision is on show in every frame. From the brown and blue colour palette made famous by Scorsese in The Aviator, to the explained and unexplained references and the uplifting story of two bright kids on a whirlwind adventure in a bustling train station. Just like Hugo spying on others through holes in walls and clocks, the audience plays the part of Scorsese in being able to peer into his vision of both a Jean Pierre Jeunet like Paris and a homage to his childhood fantasies brought to life by the earliest films.
Despite the long-lasting thirst for power and blood, Scorsese’s filmography is chock-a-block with game-changers and out-of-the-box surprises. Diving into new territory, Hugo is a fun, rousing assault on the senses.