If you don’t believe life is strange, consider this: Martin Scorsese, master of Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Raging Bull, has made a kids’ movie - and not just any kids’ movie, but a beautiful helping of 3-D that might make Steven Spielberg jealous.
Sure that seems out of character for Scorsese, but as you dig deeper into Hugo, Scorsese’s elegant adaptation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret - a 2007 children’s book by Brian Selznik - it becomes increasingly apparent why Scorsese chose to become involved.
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
In addition to being a first-rate director, Scorsese is also one of the most knowledgeable film lovers in the world, and Hugo brings him back to the time when movies had naïve innocence, and no one was quite sure whether moving images were more than a passing fad.
We’re talking about the time, say, of the Lumiere brothers, a wonderful moment when audiences could be startled and thrilled by the simple sight of a train arriving at a station.
Don’t be put off. Hugo is not an arcane helping of cinema history designed to impress buffs. It’s a film in which a jaw-dropping mastery of craft is matched by a celebratory spirit about what movies can do.
The story revolves around Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphaned boy who lives in the walls of a train station in Paris where he has taken it upon himself to wind the station’s clocks. Hugo also has a talent for fixing things, and he sustains himself by stealing bits of food and outwitting the station’s police inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen).
Hugo has one remaining link to the father (Jude Law) he lost in a fire at the museum where Dad worked: an automaton, a wind-up creation with a passive face, clockwork innards and a skeletal frame.
Hugo hopes to activate the automaton, an aspiration that brings him into contact with a variety of characters: Georges (Ben Kingsley), the sour-faced owner of the station’s toy booth; Georges’ wife Jeanne (Helen McCrory); and their adopted daughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz).
The performances range from good to excellent, but the real star of Scorsese’s movie may be the movie itself.
I don’t think I’ve seen a film that has made much better use of 3-D than Hugo. Every shot seems to have been composed to maximize the capabilities of 3-D cameras. Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson move those cameras through the station’s labyrinth of cogs, gears and wheels, through its bustling waiting room and through the streets of Paris in the 1930s.
The station itself is a triumph of production design, an urban hub that flirts with nostalgia without entirely succumbing to it.
All of this (and more) make Hugo a bona fide technical triumph. And that may be part of the point Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan are making. They’re not interested in gadgetry for its own sake; they’re interested in the equipment that helps make dreams real.
That brings us back to where I started: The love of cinema.
It turns out that Kingsley’s Georges is none other than Georges Milies, a famous early filmmaker whose 1902 film, A Trip to the Moon, featured an iconic shot of a rocket landing directly in the eye of the Man in the Moon. By the time, Hugo begins, Milies has grown old, and his work mostly has been forgotten. Thanks to a late-picture development, a film historian (Michael Stuhlbarg) helps reconnect Milies with a part of himself he thought he’d lost.
It’s possible that Hugo, which makes skillful use of film footage from Milies, Harold Lloyd and others, will prove more of a delight to adults than to children. But I’d take kids to see it because they’ll be watching a story that has been beautifully assembled, because the kids at its center are smart, brave and sincere, because Hugo might teach them something about a cultural inheritance they didn’t know they had, and because the movie doesn’t debase itself by pandering to what it thinks kids might want to see.
Those familiar with Scorsese’s passions will understand and appreciate the fact that Hugo also becomes a bit of a commercial for film preservation, one of Scorsese’s prime concerns. He does this not by shortchanging the story of a lonely boy who’s captivated by movies, but by enhancing it.
To his credit, Scorsese makes it clear that restoring old films is about more than finding bits and pieces of bygone footage in unlikely places; it’s about the restoration of lost dreams.