With Hugo, director Martin Scorsese has created a dazzling, wondrous experience, an undeniable visual masterpiece. In his adaptation of Brian Selznick’s novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Scorsese weaves together his many passions and concerns: for art, for film, and for fathers and father-figures. He retells the story of a boy (Hugo Cabret, played by Asa Butterfield) in search of a way to complete his father’s work. Alongside Hugo’s tale is the true story of Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), one of the world’s first filmmakers.
With such great material (perhaps even too much), it is unfortunate that the actual story driving the film does not come together in typical Scorsesian fashion. As a director known to tell a complex story with intertwining characters of distinctly different pasts and presents, Hugo is undeniably a Scorsese picture. However, those characters and plots—so often brought together with a sense of urgency and unavoidable fate (The Departed and Gangs of New York, for example)—are more casually linked in his first PG-rated film. Hugo is a story about artistic purpose by a filmmaker whose best movies are concerned with destiny. Had such concerns been better conveyed in Hugo, we might have gotten a piece that incontrovertibly bound its characters together, rather than one that loosely connects them to serve the plot’s other purposes. None of this, however, changes the fact that the film is one for the still young 3D canon.
Hugo begins with a scene that propels the viewer into Paris, immediately giving one the sensation of a magical flight through the City of Lights. The boy appears as a face peeking through the number “4” on an immense and immaculate gold clock, and the viewer is suddenly running alongside him, a companion to Hugo’s mischief and mystery. This involvement is undiminished as Hugo, the eternally lonely orphan, is being chased through the train station by the station inspector (played more comically than menacingly by Sacha Baron Cohen). Although he is living alone in the very clockwork of the station—accompanied only by a strange automaton (his sole remaining connection to his deceased father)—the viewer is now witness to his beautiful life among his mechanical devices, as well as to his more tragic life in the world of his fellow men.
The movie maintains this sense of intimacy throughout, and the adventure is indeed a shared experience, especially with the introduction of Hugo’s first ally, Isabelle (played by Chloë Grace Moretz). The two join forces in an attempt to discover the connection between Hugo’s automaton and Isabelle’s Papa Georges (who the children soon find out is Georges Méliès). They have ripping good fun running through the station (where most of the action takes place), sneaking into movies, and nosing about the local film library. Isabelle is, in more ways than one, Hugo’s missing piece, although the romance is strictly and appropriately PG (hand-holding and eye-goggling).
Moretz steals the show, and her extensive experience as a young actress is evident (500 Days of Summer, Kick-Ass, and The Amityville Horror), especially alongside a weaker performance from Hollywood newcomer Butterfield (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Nanny McPhee Returns). With great composure and maturity, Moretz takes on the role of Isabelle, yet does so without overshadowing that irresistibly organic, childlike innocence so necessary in such a film.
Her performance, in fact, achieves what the film does not. Her young, heart-shaped face is the vehicle that so aptly delivers a mature performance with complex content. While Moretz balances the role of a budding intellectual with an adult vocabulary and a girlish charm, Hugo does not always strike such a balance. The material is full of good stuff—especially as Hugo and Isabelle delve deeper into the mysteries of magic, machinery, and film (or what Scorsese calls “the machinery of creativity”); it is, in many ways, a film for the intellectual and the artist. But such material (in the abundance in which it is delivered) might very well be lost on the audience for whom this film will really resonate—children.
Scorsese’s picture risks being overwhelmed by its own themes and messages. It is too committed to showing the viewer that “time is everything” (and that art is too, and that the loss of either or both is one of life’s greatest tragedies), and yet it is not committed enough to constructing the perfect story. One might even argue that, in an attempt to link the character of Hugo Cabret to the filmmaker Georges Méliès, the film reaches too high. Such heights might have been achieved, but with far more care for the movie itself rather than for the story (and stories) behind the movie.
As a consequence, the historically based plot surrounding Georges Méliès (the Father of Narrative Filmmaking) is, in fact, the most prolific. In the scenes showcasing actual excerpts from Méliès’ major works (including A Trip to the Moon and Kingdom of the Fairies), one is transported back to the late 1800s, and the birth of film is something the viewer is delighted to experience.
Not surprisingly, Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley (Shutter Island, House of Sand and Fog) is quite good. As the haunted and hardened artist-turned-shopkeeper at the beginning of the film, his genius and pain is palpable. His character does, however, achieve a transformation as, through the efforts of Hugo and Isabelle, he rediscovers his purpose and passion for film. The other characters undergo similar transformations as they discover their own passions: Hugo Cabret as the magician, the clockmaker, and Isabelle as the writer who will share this tale with the world. Even the automaton becomes an artist whose work is, indeed, a message from Hugo’s father that leads the boy home.
By film’s end, Hugo makes a persuasive case that the art of film is as Méliès defines it—the invention of dreams. (And conversely, there’s a case to be made that, in our modern world, dreams are now the invention of film.) Regardless, as an ode to the history of movies, this film is a success. Indeed, it soars in visual achievement, which is what the moving pictures were originally about. Martin Scorsese has made a 3D film in an attempt to point to that lifelike quality in movies that has always existed—even before 3D. This quality is the very essence of film, and it is glorified—and rightly so—in Hugo, a cinematic tribute to the art of movies and to art itself.