(by Dustin Putman
A lavishly mounted big-budget production that only one of the greats could have so assuredly accomplished, "Hugo" stands as what one might call Martin Scorsese's very first family film in his forty-plus-year career (it is also, for what it's worth, his first PG-rated feature since 1993's "The Age of Innocence"). Indeed, children ten and over will likely be transfixed by it, but this is less an indulgent means to grab a certain demographic as it is a motion picture for anyone at all who is in love with the art of movies and the history of cinema. Smaller children and attention deficit sufferer may find the story too complex and cerebral, but make no mistake that a new classic has been born, one that blends tantalizing historical fact with an absorbing fictional mystery, all wrapped up in a theatrical 3D presentation as thrillingly immersive and effectively non-gimmicky as the typically superfluous format has ever seen. The question is, will "Hugo" be immediately appreciated by wide audiences, or will it take some years for viewers to catch on to just what an absorbing achievement—a narrative and technical feat combined—it truly is? Just as pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès didn't discover what a revered footprint he'd made in his art until decades later, it might be that only the passage of time will be able to tell the full story of this movie's legacy. Article continues below
France, 1931. Ever since his beloved clockmaker father (Jude Law) passed away and his hard-drinking Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) went missing, 12-year-old Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) has secretly continued to live within the walls and back passageways of a bustling Parisian train station. An orphan who feels like he has a greater purpose in the world, Hugo keeps the clocks working away and continues to elude capture from the stern, eagle-eyed Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). In the young boy's possession is the broken automaton his dad was working on before he died. Hugo suspects if he can get it running again, maybe it will be able to send him a message. At the very least, he won't feel so alone. Instructions on how to fix the mechanical man are in a notebook Hugo keeps close—that is, until grumpy toy shop owner Georges (Ben Kingsley) grabs hold of it and refuses to give it back. In search of the kind of adventure she only reads about in books, Georges' literature-loving goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) insists on helping Hugo to investigate the automaton's creation while finding a way to return the machine to working order. Eager to show off her wide vocabulary, Isabelle tells her new friend early on, "I think we shall be very clandestine."
Based on the award-winning novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick, "Hugo" is a return to form for Martin Scorsese after 2010's pulpy, predictable "Shutter Island" while, simultaneously, unlike anything else he's ever made. The plot, which revolves around the beauty of cinema and the very start of photographic film, is near and dear to Scorsese's heart—it is easy to see how the book spoke so resoundingly to him—and he has thoroughly thrown that passion into the finished product. Witnessing the dawn of an era that kids in 2011 take for granted and likely do not know about will be educational for them as, hopefully, they are also drawn in to the aesthetic spectacle and underlying heart on display. From the rapturous production design by Dante Ferretti (2007's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"), to the resplendent cinematography by Robert Richardson (2009's "Inglourious Basterds"), to the whimsically majestic music score by Howard Shore (2010's "Edge of Darkness"), to the quixotic editing by Scorsese regular Thelma Schoonmaker (2006's "The Departed"), to the special effects team that has built a seamless period world one foot in reality and the other in a wintry dreamscape, it's quite an experience to behold. Even the 3D, which Scorsese has mastered beyond anything James Cameron has ever done, is lovingly pulled off, using depth and extra dimensionality to compliment rather than steal attention away from the other technical elements in evidence. There is still the natural dimming issue that comes with having to wear darkened glasses, but otherwise, this is the first film since 2010's "Tron: Legacy" that shows off the full potential of the 3D format. With a stunning new detail lurking in each inch of every frame, it's sometimes almost too easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and get lost in its visuals.
Screenwriter John Logan (2011's "Rango") has put enough care into the material that he makes sure the threat of style over substance never comes to fruition. With much of the so-called action scenes sparsely peppered throughout—the most conventional and grand in scope arrives in a dream, actually—audiences reliant on a zooming pace and non-stop, death-defying thrills will leave less than satisfied. Since Isabelle makes mention early on of her desire for a big adventure, it might even be assumed that these sorts of suspense-laden, stunt-heavy set-pieces are coming. What Logan and Scorsese bring to the forefront, however, is an enthrallingly layered narrative that calls upon a wider array of tricks based solely on what is demanded of the material. Never are there explosions or destruction or peril simply to have it; when things of this nature arrive, it can be assured that it's necessary and well-earned. That the time is taken to get to know and care for, at first, Hugo and Isabelle, and then later Georges, his wife Jeanne (Helen McCrory), and other characters that gradually move into focus is precisely why the developments and surprises in the third act have as much force and poignance as they do.
Asa Butterfield (2010's "Nanny McPhee Returns") is an offbeat choice to play the title protagonist. He's wonderful and expressive and your heart eventually aches for him, but Butterfield is not a traditionally "cute" child. With his black hair and piercing blue eyes, there is a rough-around-the-edges quality to him, a sense that he could play a more threatening character quite easily—think a younger Cillian Murphy—if the role called for it. All the same, Butterfield does gain the viewer's sympathy, and there's nothing negative to say about his performance other than that he's not the most orthodox of casting decisions. As friend and confidante Isabelle, Chloë Grace Moretz (2010's "Let Me In") is remarkably charismatic; like Elle Fanning or a young Jodie Foster, it is impossible to turn away from her when she's on the screen. Moretz can say so much not in what she says, but in how she says it—the mark of a particularly talented and intuitive actor. Even when the expository goings-on tend to go a little long at the halfway point, it is a treat all the same just to follow the evolution of Butterfield's and Moretz's lovely, unforced relationship.
What begins as a vaguely one-note antagonist—that of Scrooge-like toy shop owner Georges Méliès—grows in unexpected, reverential ways the more Hugo learns about him. Having Ben Kingsley (2010's "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time") in the role elevates it further, the often misused legendary actor relishing the opportunity to portray his most memorable and dynamic character since the one he played in 2003's "House of Sand and Fog." As the creator of 1902's "A Trip to the Moon," Georges has seen his dreams flit away in the fire he used to destroy much of his work. Now, almost thirty years later, he is given a transformative second chance. Perhaps he made a bigger impression on the world than he had been led to believe. Sacha Baron Cohen (2009's "Bruno") is just right as the harsh, impeccably dressed, iron-legged Station Inspector, out to send Hugo to an orphanage while keeping his softer side—his bashful crush on cute flower girl Lisette (Emily Mortimer) - at bay.
Helen McCrory (2011's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2") is wonderful as Isabelle's godmother Jeanne, cautious of her hanging out with this strange boy until he and film historian Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg) show up to remind her of a part of her illustrious past she'd long put behind her. Though underused, Emily Mortimer (2011's "Our Idiot Brother"), as Lisette; Christopher Lee (2007's "The Golden Compass"), as librarian Monsieur Labisse; Frances de la Tour (2010's "Alice in Wonderland") and Richard Griffiths (2011's "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides"), as a dog-loving café owner and newspaper seller with feelings for each other; and Jude Law (2011's "Contagion"), making a brief but lastingly tender impression as Hugo's father, round out the uniformly fine ensemble.
In "Hugo," Martin Scorsese likens filmmaking to the work of a magician—is it any wonder this quirky profession is where Georges Méliès and his actress wife Jeanne got their start?—and beautifully brings home the point that everyone has their own personal mark to make on the planet at large. As Hugo tells Isabelle while the two of them look out over a gently snowing Paris from behind the head of the clock tower, he sees the world as one big mechanism that needs all of its parts to function correctly. Since he and she are two of those parts, it stands to reason that they have their own important reasons for being there. By the end, they've found their respective places. "Hugo" is extravagant but unpretentious, a touching fable with a thoughtful message and eye candy galore. It's one of the year's richest entertainments.