A Glorious Film History Lesson
Director Martin Scorsese is best known for his tough, bloody R-rated movies like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, so it was something of a shock when it was announced that he would be adapting the kids book The Invention of Hugo Cabret for the silver screen. One thing Scorsese is above all, however, is a movie buff. Speaking as someone who has never met the man, I wouldn’t be surprised if he himself said he was a film buff first, movie director second. Once you realize that, and you know what the book is actually about, Hugo actually seems like a perfect fit for the Oscar-winning director.
The title character is Hugo Cabret, an inquisitive young man who has been orphaned following the sudden death of his father and the not-so-mysterious disappearance of his drunken uncle. Hugo lives within the walls of a Paris train station, maintaining the clocks as his uncle trained him to and working to repair the machine that his father found abandoned in a museum. Convinced that repairing the device will somehow trigger a message from his father, Hugo steals parts from a local toy stand to accomplish the task.
When he is caught by the shop’s owner, Hugo must work off his debt. This also leads him into the company of the man’s goddaughter Isabelle, a girl who dreams of having an adventure, but so far has only found them in books. Together, Hugo and Isabelle discover that her godfather is a once-famous man whom the rest of the world presumed dead. Unfortunately, he is dejected and does not want to discuss or even acknowledge the past life that he assumes is long lost. Fortunately, Hugo and Isabelle might just have the key to “fixing” him.
First and foremost, Hugo is a stunning movie from a visual standpoint. Late 1920s Paris is recreated in a way that seems only like it could have been born out of a dream. Golden in color, the train station is filmed by a camera that soars both inside and in between the walls. Dust particles that float through the air in every scene and the constant presence of steam add to the otherworldly, old-timey movie feel.
That’s appropriate, considering the movie turns out to be a fascinating film history lesson of sorts. Hugo grants the audience a rare privilege to view some of the first movies ever made. We’re talking about movies at the turn of the 20th Century, the era when the entire “plot” was given away by the title: movies like “The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station” and “Workers Leaving a Factory.” Hugo is sure to be the only place modern audience members will get to see these films unless they are film school students or true film buffs, and it is fascinating to watch. It helps, too, that Hugo introduces a film historian as a character about halfway through the film to help guide us through what we are seeing. His lesson is focused mostly on one specific figure of film history who turns out to play a major role in the modern movie the audience is watching.
As it turns out, Hugo almost works better as a film history lesson than it does as a movie itself. It runs a little long thanks to some extended scenes in the middle that tend to drag a bit, but fortunately these scenes are worth wading through in order to get to the good stuff that’s coming.
The charm of the movie is aided by the delightful cast that is headed by Asa Butterfield as Hugo and Chloe Grace Moretz as Isabelle. Moretz has already proven in a number of roles that she has the potential to become a powerful actress in Hollywood, while Butterfield’s star is sure to rise thanks to his performance here. In fact, he’s already been cast as the lead in the highly anticipated Ender’s Game adaptation.
The two young stars are surrounded by a remarkable supporting cast that includes Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emily Mortimer, and Jude Law. Of course, every movie needs a villain and Sacha Baron Cohen is terrific as the Station Inspector determined to throw Hugo in the orphanage. Even he’s not a total bad guy, however, and the audience will find themselves rooting for him in the end, too.
Scorsese’s love of the movies certainly comes out in Hugo and the audience’s experience is all the better for it.
Hugo is rated PG for “mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking.” This is Martin Scorsese’s first PG-rated movie in 18 years, and it is very appropriate. A couple of scenes might be a little too intense for younger viewers, but that’s all.
Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of Hugo.