Thank God for Martin Scorsese. Authentic movie magic is a rare event these days, but Scorsese conjures it several times in Hugo. This is the story of a boy who watches through small windows as other people live their lives. It is about the struggles of creative people, of artists, of failures and renewed victories. It is Martin Scorsese’s life, transferred and transformed into a version of Brian Selznick’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
Paris during the 1930’s. Hugo Cabret is the son of a clockmaker (played well but briefly by Jude Law) who dies in a fire. Hugo’s uncle, a drunk and a clockmaker himself, takes him in and teaches Hugo how to maintain the clock at a train station in Paris. When the uncle disappears without a word, Hugo continues to take care of the station’s clocks on his own, all the while living within the walls of the train station.
Scorsese and rock-star cinematographer Robert Richardson take 3D and create artful investigations of the train station, the gear infested walls and the streets of Paris, seen from atop the clock tower. Snowflakes fall into our laps as we watch Hugo walk, chilled to the bone, along the frozen sidewalk. We feel the depth of his home within the walls, as we sweep through narrow passages and up and down ladders. My favorite, though, is simply seeing Hugo watch the train inhabitants through the face of a clock. The clock itself is in the foreground, while Hugo’s watchful face is farther back in the depths of his world, the one nobody knows about. The effect of the 3D in this case is an addition to the storytelling, rather than a slick, though impressive, technique.
Two conflicts rule the first part of the film. As a necessary running antagonist, Sacha Baron Cohen plays a heartless Station Inspector who has a sharp eye out for thieving urchins (namely, Hugo) and an equally eager Doberman at his side. This is my least favorite part of the movie and I think its weakest. It’s not so much that, early on, Cohen’s antics resemble some of the worst moments of the worst Pink Panther films. Rather, it is that nothing else in the film matches that tone. I’m not sure that Scorsese knows how to handle PG physical comedy. Luckily, the cap is twisted closed on these gags soon enough to preserve the character’s dignity.
The second conflict revolves around an enigmatic shopkeeper who owns a small toy shop in the train station. Besides looking awfully similar to the historical character he plays, Ben Kingsley brings a touch of magic himself. Kingsley’s vibrant, shadowed eyes convey more mystery and depth than most actors’ entire bodies. And Scorsese doesn’t waste a minute of it.
Kingsley’s character, ‘Papa Georges’, catches Hugo attempting to steal a wind-up toy mouse. We discover that it is not the first thing Hugo has taken from the shop. Not even close. Hugo, it seems, is trying to finish a project that he had begun with his father before he died. His father had found an old automaton, essentially a wind-up robot, in a museum. The size of a very small child but all metal and gears, the automaton is supposed to be able to write with a pen when wound up. But it has been broken since Hugo’s father found it. The mechanical pieces Hugo needs to fix it can be found in some of the toys of the shop.
In addition to recovering the toy mouse from Hugo, Papa Georges also claims a notebook of the mechanical schematics for the automaton from Hugo’s pockets. We are left to wonder why Georges is so emotional, so cruel, when he discovers this notebook. The answer, of course, if one of the keys to the climax of the film (which I will not reveal in this review). But Hugo’s efforts to retrieve the notebook lead him to meet Isabelle, a girl a little older than himself, who is Georges’ goddaughter. Isabelle’s parents are both dead too.
The interaction between Asa Butterfield as Hugo and Chloe Grace Moretz as Isabelle is like Harry Potter and Hermione, though one step better. These two young actors have far greater range and maturity than the Potter actors. But the setup is similar: Hugo is unfamiliar with normal life, but is adventurous and has secret talents. Isabelle is book smart and loves telling Hugo things he does not know. The astounding element to their relationship (not found in Potter) is the puppy-love story. These two actors are more honest in their affection towards each other than very nearly any adult versions I have seen this year (the one in J. Edgar was impressive). I chalk this up to great casting, talented young actors and, of course, Scorsese’s guiding hand.
Together, Hugo and Isabelle discover amazing secrets about her Papa Georges. Most importantly, they realize that they must save him from himself and his inexplicable despair. I cannot go into too much detail without giving the rest away. Suffice it to say that the remainder of the film serves as Martin Scorsese’s love letter to old, silent films, and to artists; directors or magicians or whatever they may be. If you love magical children’s movies, old silent films or are a fan of amazing graphics and 3D effects, this movie is for you.