Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz and Ben Kingsley
Rated PG for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking
2 hrs. 7 min.
A family film? Scorsese? Really? Yes, really, although your view and Marty’s view about family may be completely different.
While the family film tag is what movie marketeers are trying to sell, rest assured, the man has not gone soft. It’s true that, compared to Goodfellas or Raging Bull, Hugo may seem mild. No blue language. No violence. But it still has Scorsese’s grit: loneliness, tragedy, human suffering, industrialization and, most of all, the loss of one’s soul. Against these challenges, the film fights for imagination and argues for the innate need of humans to create something magic.
Thus we find Hugo (Asa Butterfield), a small boy without family or friends, who lives by himself in the bowels of a train station. By tragic accident, he has been left in charge of maintaining the station’s clocks. In his spare time, he works on an automaton, a small human figure made of gears and metal. The figure belonged to his father before he died.
Hugo spends his days winding the station’s clocks, stealing food in the station, and pilfering small parts from local toy shop owner Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) in hopes of repairing the automaton and receiving a secret message from his dead father.
The automaton does hold a secret, but not what Hugo imagines. Such is the nature of this film. There is magic here that permeates every square inch of Scorsese’s sets, dialogue and characters, and that magic begins with Méliès himself.
Georges Méliès was an early French filmmaker who practically invented what we now take for granted as special effects. A noted Paris magician, in 1895 he happened to walk in on a film being shown by the Lumière brothers. Méliès was smitten.
By the time World War I approached, Méliès was a famous movie director who had created some 500 films. But as fate would have it, he went bankrupt and most of his films disappeared. Méliès spent his late years working in a toy shop at the Montparnasse train station in Paris.
Hugo picks up on that story and pays tribute to Méliès’ lost films. As did Méliès the film magician, Scorsese infuses Hugo with otherworldly special effects — large clock gears, steaming boilers and clips from films made by Méliès himself. What Scorsese hopes to do is to charge his movie with the same sense of wonder that both he and Méliès felt when they first discovered film as an art form.
In homage to the great filmmaker, Scorsese has essentially made a French film. As such, he has incorporated the French love for whimsy and added his own ingenuity to meld together acting, directing, set design and special effects.
The cast in Hugo seems to have taken Scorsese to heart. Young Butterfield, with his light-blue eyes and thin frame, radiates Hugo’s pluck, loneliness and sharp powers of observation. Chloë Grace Moretz as Isabelle is the yin to Hugo’s yang — bright, vivacious and open-hearted. And Ben Kingsley as Georges Méliès personifies the intense spirit of the magician, filmmaker and artist.
The result is a film that feels as though it could be real, or magic, or both at the same time. Most of all, it’s filled with a thirst for imagination and the potential of imagination to raise someone out of a humdrum existence into a brand new world.
Hugo may be billed as a family film, but that title is misleading. What Scorsese has really done is reinvent movie magic and create a work of genuine art.
Moreover, Hugo offers an invitation; as we’re ingested by a machine-like world that threatens to drain our creativity, the story seeks to return us to our best and brightest hope. As Méliès says to the audience at the end of the film: Ladies and gentlemen, come dream with me.