At first, “Hugo” feels offbeat in the career of Martin Scorsese. Can you possibly imagine a PG-rated family movie made by the great American director who has impressed us with the gritty masterpieces like “Raging Bull”(1980) or “Goodfellas”(1990)? However, while it is a fantastic family film in many aspects, “Hugo” has the heart filled with his love and admiration toward the great artistic medium in the modern history, and we are rapturously reminded again of how we dream through the films we love – and why these beautiful moments in the darkness are worthwhile to preserve.
The story begins with a young boy who has been living in one big train station in Paris, which is probably the Montparnasse station, during the early 1930s. When he was younger, Hugo Cabret(Asa Butterfield) was living with his clockmaker father(Jude Law) who also worked at the museum. Hugo’s father found an automaton, the machine which can write or draw by itself after it is winded up, at the basement of the museum, and he was determined to restore it. Many automatons were made during 1860-1910, “the Golden Age of Automata”, and some of them have been well-preserved by the museums and collectors. They still can be operated; they can do not lots of things, but, when I was watching one YouTube clip, I could not help but marvel at how it was meticulously operated by its intricate clockwork mechanisms inside the machine.
Hugo’s father died due to an unfortunate fire incident before completing his restoration job, so Hugo was left alone, and he was brought by his alcoholic uncle Claude(Ray Winstone) to the train station. He learned lots of skills from Claude like he did from his dad, so, while living in the place hidden from the people, he has been working as an unrecognized unofficial maintenance man for the clocks in the station since his uncle was disappeared. He does not get paid, so he usually steals croissant and milk from the cafe in the station while managing to elude the watchful eyes of Station Inspector Gustave(Sacha Baron Cohen, funny in a stiff, straight way) and his loyal Doberman dog Maximilian.
During its first half, thanks to Scorsese’s full command of styles and techniques, we have a joyful fun with the world in which Hugo moves around using the hidden spaces and passages around the station. Right from the opening scene where the movie glides straight from the picturesque night landscape of Paris to the bright interior of the station, the cinematographer Robert Richardson’s camera smoothly moves around the bountifully gorgeous interior designed by Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo while following the movements of Hugo and other characters. Besides Inspector Gustave, there are also other characters who work at the station: the cafe owner(Frances de la Tour), the newspaper stand owner(Richard Griffith) who likes her, and the flower shop girl(Emily Mortimer) for whom Gustave has been carrying a torch. Observed by Hugo, they provide several amusing moments to us.
And there is one cranky old man named Georges(Ben Kingsley) for whom Hugo happens to work at his toy shop at the corner of the station. While getting acquainted with Isabelle(Chloë Grace Moretz), a young lively girl who has been raised by Georges and his wife, Hugo and Isabelle come to discover that there is the connection between Georges and his father’s machine he has been trying to fix. In addition, this old man turns out to be none other than Georges Méliès, who was one of the great innovators during the early stage of the film history. Ben Kingsley is superlative as a bitter old man still feeling hurt by his broken dreams in the past. He seems to be mean and heartless at first, but we gradually begin to see his pains and sorrows buried behind his stern face.
Through Méliès’ reminiscence part in the movie, we come to see how wondrous time it was for him and his crews including his devoted wife(Helen McCroy) while they made movies at his studio which looked a lot like a big glass house(They did not have the lighting equipment, so they needed sunlight for film exposure). As a gifted illusionist who dazzled the audiences with his illusions on the stage, Méliès instantly saw the new possibility from the short films of the Lumière brothers when he attended the legendary film screening at the Grand Café in Paris on Dec. 28, 1895. I watched the film in 2D, but I could see why Scorsese decided to use 3D techniques in this film. For instance, in this scene, we are not so scared by the train coming ahead to us on the screen, but 3D will at least help understanding how the audiences at that time felt about the Lumière brothers’s famous film “Arrival of a Train at a Station”(1895). Though I saw it in 2D and I had really no complaint about 2D version, I could notice clearly where Scorsese used 3D effectively in the other good scenes, and I am interested in watching the film again in 3D. Like Wim Wenders’ documentary “Pina”(2011), I guess that is the sign of a good 3D film made by the director who fully understands how to use 3D.
After witnessing this important moment of the film history, Méliès decided to make his own movies and, in the end, he made 531 films between 1896 and 1913. The production of “A Trip to the Moon”(1902), one of his famous films which has been always remembered with that immortal image of the rocket shot from a large cannon and then stuck into the moon’s face(ouch!), is fascinatingly reproduced in Scorsese’s film with lots of details to be appreciated. While trying to create the fantasies on the screen, Méliès developed several important film techniques and special effects to be used by other filmmakers later, and that made him one of the most influential pioneers in the film history.
The heart of “Hugo” lies in the second part of the story. As a young movie fan who used to go to the movie theaters with his dad, Hugo decides to help Méliès by showing him that he and his legacy are not forgotten at all, and that is what must have come close to Scorsese himself, who is both a great director and a great movie buff. I fondly remember how entertaining he was in the documentary “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies”(1995). As many of you know, he has been in love with movies since he was young, and, in that documentary, he passionately talks a lot about the movies he loves with his vast knowledge on film techniques and history. Even though you have never heard about the films he talks about, he will entice you to have an interest on them and you will probably see them someday.
Any movie buff like me will be amused by the growing relationship between Hugo and Isabelle. We love to show others the movies we like, and so does Hugo, who shows Isabelle the world she has never encountered before. In exchange, she leads him to her equally beautiful world filled with many books at the bookstore run by Monsieur Labisse(surprisingly genial Christopher Lee). Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz are good together as the smart, inquisitive kids with lots of eagerness; they want to know, and they will certainly not be stopped by the adults surrounding them. That is how they come upon one important book in the library, written by a kind film scholar René Tabard(Michael Stuhlbarg, amiable and gentle) who gives a brief but informative lecture on the early era of the film history to them and us.
Scorsese has been the leading champion of film restoration and preservation, and he emphasizes their importance to us through the painful chapter of Méliès’s life. At the end of his illustrious career, Méliès became bankrupt, and his studio was closed, and he burnt his sets and props out of rage. And, this is the saddest part, most of his films he had were destroyed completely; they were melted down and then used for making shoe heels. As a result, more than half of his works were lost forever; it was a great loss to us.
However, “Hugo” is not just about this despairing loss – it is also about the hopeful rejuvenation through resurrecting dreams. In the end, thanks to the kids’ sincere efforts, Méliès becomes happy to see his works being resurrected and coming back to the welcoming audiences who appreciate his works. As of 2011, around 200 films of Méliès were restored and available, and that fact makes the finale of “Hugo” more moving and poignant. I must mention that, in spite of the recognitions and appreciations he belatedly received, Méliès‘s final years were a little less rosy than what is shown in the finale, but we are dealing with a historical fairy tale adapted by John Logan from Brian Selznick’s award-winning illustrated children’s book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, not the precise historical facts.
“Hugo” is a delightful movie for all audiences. It is a lightweight work compared to other notable films in Scorsese’s career, but it is as technically impressive as his best films, and its story as personal to him as theirs. Even if you do not know much about the movies, you will be entertained by its unadulterated energy inside its story. If you know a little more about movies than others, you will be reminded with joy and wonder that why we love to watch movies.
By the way, though the movie is intended as a family film, the kids may be a little disappointed because they do not get what they usually expect from other lesser family films and animations. But some of them may learn something about movies and their artistic values as the portal to the dreamworld shared by their parents. At present, I am considering about showing it to my cousin’s young son. He is a clever elementary school kid, and he likes watching movies with my brother’s laptop. I think he will be very receptive toward what Scorsese wants to show and tell him.