Saturday, February 25, 2012

Hugo

Hugo is both a wonderful family film and a movie for movie lovers. It’s equal-parts charming, sweet, intriguing and magical. That may not sound like your typical Martin Scorsese picture, and it’s not, but his trademark craftsmanship is here, along with some new tricks. Most of the best children’s movies have dark sides, and as it turns out, Scorsese’s talents are perfectly suited for this genre. Scorsese’s passion for the project is clear; you can sense his care from the other side of the camera, and the happy ending (and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this film has one) involves film restoration.

In 1931, 12-year-old Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives as an orphan in one of Paris’ grand railway stations. Not knowing what else to do, he continues his missing uncle’s task of maintaining the clocks. He sneaks out occasionally to steal food but is caught and put to work by toy shop owner Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). While working in Méliès’ shop, Hugo befriends Méliès’ goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Hugo introduces her to the station’s secret world of passages and maintenance rooms, and the two work together to solve the mystery of a broken automaton, a mechanical man holding a pen, that Hugo’s father was repairing when he died.

What makes this a movie for movie lovers? You may know Georges Méliès as one of cinema’s most important and prolific pioneers, but even if you don’t recognize his name, you’ve likely seen the iconic image of a spaceship lodged in the eye of the man in the moon from Méliès’ most famous short film, A Voyage to the Moon (1902). Méliès made over 500 films (slightly over 200 of which have survived), but Ben Kingsley plays Méliès as a reclusive, largely forgotten has-been (there is some historical truth to this). Love drives Hugo’s narrative: familial love, friendship, and most of all, love of the cinema.

Both child leads have proved themselves in other films and are charming once again here. Few child performers continue their acting careers as adults, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see both Butterfield and Moretz in pictures for years to come. Ben Kingsley gives real depth to Méliès, playing a bitter man tormented by his past failures. Besides the leads, Hugo boasts memorable supporting performances from veterans Jude Law, Christopher Lee, Emily Mortimer, Ray Winstone, and others. Special mention goes to Michael Stuhlbarg as a film historian and to Sacha Baron Cohen, the station inspector. Cohen’s inspector is the closest thing Hugo has to a villain, though he’s ultimately driven by a desire to do good. I was reminded of Inspector Javert in Les Misérables, though as you might imagine, Hugo offers a more lighthearted, comical take.

The train station makes for a great setting. Smoke, crowds, secret corridors, shadows; Hugo instills that essential sense of wonder and mystique present in nearly all great family films. The film is adapted from a children’s book (The Invention of Hugo Cabret), and while I don’t know if the author had Victor Hugo’s work in mind when he named the lead character, Hugo reminded me of Quasimodo living in isolation, helping the city run on time, and dreaming of joining the passersby. The relatively light darkness continually gives way to sweetness and emotional payoff. By the film’s end, I had been thoroughly charmed.

Hugo marks Scorsese’s first (and possibly last?) movie filmed in 3D. The 3D effects are purposeful and much stronger than movies that are shot conventionally and converted to 3D in post production. Still, though the effects work, they don’t significantly improve the viewing experience. Hugo will be just as good on video simply because it’s a great film, and no 3D effect can alter that (Hollywood also has yet to learn that 3D doesn’t make bad films better).

I don’t know if Scorsese will make another children’s/family film, but he’s made a great one: a worthy addition to his considerable library of classics. I think kids and movie lovers will be Hugo’s biggest fans (I’m certain it would have fascinated me as a child), but more than entertain its viewers, Scorsese’s family picture might just educate and inspire a future generation of movie lovers. I can’t imagine a more fitting legacy than that.





For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking.

Hugo has a dream where he opens his eyes in bed to find the automaton looking at him, and then he looks down to see gears and mechanical parts as though he himself is a machine. That bad dream might frighten some younger viewers, though on the whole, this movie isn’t too dark or scary. The station’s labyrinth of tunnels and gears are more intriguing than frightening. Also, a character apparently smokes (in 3D, no less), though its impact wasn’t great enough for me to remotely recall it.

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