What It Is
Hugo (Asa Butterfield) has a milky pale complexion and sharp blue eyes. The first is at least partly because he lives inside the walls at the Gare Montparnasse in Paris; the second he uses to watch everything and everyone he can, from inside those walls. Indeed, Hugo begins as he’s looking out at the bustling train station floor: travelers carry their suitcases or sip coffee at a café, men get their shoes shined and a live band plays pop tunes. And the station inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) makes his rounds, his leg brace squeaking and his Doberman pinscher sniffing.
It’s winter in 1931, and both Hugo and Gustav are feeling very alone. While Hugo is still grieving the loss of his father (Jude Law) in a fire, Gustav is suffering the effects of a troubled childhood (in an orphanage) as well as his experience in World War I (where he received his leg wound). While Gustav timidly approaches the fetching flower girl, Lisette (Emily Mortimer), who also works at the train station, Hugo finds his own object of affection, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). As Gustav maintains his menacing pursuit of Hugo and the boy keeps escaping, they can’t recognize their similarities. But the movie makes them clear enough for you.
Both man and boy are connected to machines. While Gustav oils his leg brace and keeps fervent track of the time each day, Hugo has inherited his clockmaker dad’s love of machines, and when he’s not making sure the station clocks are all running on time, he’s working on the automaton his father once loved, a half-sized mechanical man posed to sit at a desk; when he’s fixed, will be able to write. Hugo hopes that the automaton will write something just for him, perhaps a secret message from his father.
Hugo’s future takes a turn when he meets the toyshop keeper, Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). At first they clash and then, as Hugo sees in Georges a certain kindred sadness, a mix of longing and fear, the boy wants to help the old man. His interest is piqued as well by Georges’ granddaughter Isabelle. She sees in Hugo a chance at an adventure, and she presses him to share his secrets and his dreams.
It turns out these dreams are drawn in part from the movies he used to see with his father, especially his favorite, 1902’s A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune). When he hears that Isabelle has never been to the movies, Hugo takes her (they sneak in, which only adds to the excitement of her first time): wide-eyed, they watch Safety Last (the famous scene where Harold Lloyd hangs from the clock’s hands, dangling high above a city street) and Isabelle understands for the first time that movies are wondrous, transporting, and transformative.
This is the point of Hugo. And it’s reinforced by the movies of Georges Méliès, whose own secret Hugo discovers. For it turns out that Isabelle’s grandfather is indeed the magician behind the early, utterly inventive fantasy and science fiction movies, like A Trip to the Moon and An Impossible Voyage (Le voyage à travers l’impossible) (1904). The children uncover Pappa Georges’ real identity, helped by a devoted film historian (Michael Stuhlbarg) and also Georges’ wife and onetime movie star Jeanne (Helen McCrory). It turns out he was forced to give up his filmmaking business and his dreams at the end of World War I, when soldiers returned wounded and traumatized (much like Gustav), unable to see and enjoy the magic in the movies.
When the children and Jeanne watch one of his old movies, Georges is able to see it anew. Moved like them Méliès is able to regain his name and reclaim his own fantastic past.
Why It’s Fun
The best parts of Hugo are the Georges Méliès movie scenes, some borrowed from the original movies and some recreated for this film. Amid the visual thrills provided by Scorsese’s swooping 3D cameras and the frequently marvelous use of space — stairways and ladders and close quarters inside the station walls — the movie returns again and again to these early images by Méliès: actors in garish costumes, carrying outrageous props, disappearing in awkward poofs of smoke or fighting giant mechanical dragons rolled in on tracks, The frames are hand-tinted, the cuts are clumsy, and the films are completely enchanting.
The relationships between Hugo and Isabelle, and again, Hugo and Georges, are beautifully drawn, in large part effective because of Moretz’s beguiling enthusiasm and Kingsley’s understatement (even when Georges is being cruel, his eyes suggest he feels his own pain). Still, the film’s most captivating relationship is one that barely occurs on screen: it is the lifelong partnership between Georges and Jeanne:, evoked each time the camera turns to her eyes, so expressive and so adoring.
Who’s Going To Love It
The movie will attract and probably please fans of Brian Selznick’s illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007). It will also appeal to anyone who’s interested in the history of movies. If its version of that history isn’t entirely accurate, it’s lovely and evocative, and shows how incredible the earliest movies were — then and now.
Hugo will also appeal to viewers looking for a film made in 3D that isn’t insulting. Like Méliès’s movies, it makes creative use of the available technologies, pushing these to their best effects rather than relying on the usual tricks, objects protruding forward. Instead, it uses the 3D to construct depth, a sense that Hugo and his associates might actually live inside this fiction.
What To Be Aware Of
The film’s chase scenes might be especially visceral for some viewers, because the 3D is used so effectively. Some of these effects are also emotional, as viewers will worry that Hugo is in danger, chased by Gustav.
At the train station café, patrons imbibe drinks and smoke cigarettes.
Hugo’s Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) is an ugly drunk, and is rough in his behavior and treatment of Hugo. Late in the film, he turns up dead, and you see a long shot of his corpse as policemen inspect it.
Hugo and another boy at the train station steal in order to eat. Hugo also behaves rather badly (stubborn and rude) when he first meets Georges.
When Isabelle and Hugo sneak into the cinema, she worries they might get into trouble because they’re breaking the rules. He assures her that this is what makes an adventure, and the film supports this interpretation.
8 out of 10
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law
US Premiere: November 23, 2011
UK Premiere: December 2, 2011