I have no idea how this fell through the cracks, but it’s been sitting here as a draft since November, 2011.
Late on in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley) stands upon the stage in his tuxedo, drenched in spotlight, a mix of nerves and excitement in his face and in his voice, and welcomes the wizards and magicians in the crowd.
Despite coming towards the end, it’s a fitting welcome to this film too. It’s a film which was seemingly handcrafted entirely by wizards and magicians, made for people in awe of the kind of magic and wizardry that the camera can be used to compose. The camera may not be made of gears and sprockets anymore, it may not print onto celluloid anymore, or even have the same dimensions that the original film magicians, but the spirit is the same, and so is the magic — especially from Scorsese and Bob Richardson’s hands.
Adapted from the children’s novel by Brian Selznick (grandson of the legendary David O. Selznick), Hugo tells the story of a little poor boy (Asa Butterfield) in 1920s Paris who goes to live in the walls of the Gare Montparnasse train station after the death of his father (Jude Law) in a fire. Barely more than an orphan, Hugo is stuck tending to and winding the station’s clocks for his Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), a drunk and a scoundrel who has been off on a bender for weeks by the time the film starts. Hugo has nothing left of his past life, except an old mechanical man that he and his father were trying to fix, his father’s notebook about how to do it.
When he is caught stealing parts in aid of that purpose by Papa Georges, an old toymaker who keeps a booth in the station, an adventure is set before Hugo and Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), the toymaker’s goddaughter who may literally hold the key to unravel the mystery behind the mechanical man. It’s an adventure that traces through the origins and history of the cinema as well both of their family histories, one that radically changes each of their lives, and maybe even the world as we know it today.
Early on, though, I had a tough time getting past the idea that Scorsese had decided to jump onto the bandwagon and make a 3D film — and a kids’ movie no less. How do you get blood and Catholic guilt into a kids’ movie, and why does it need to be in my face about it? But not only is Hugo enjoyable in 3D (and 2D as well), it turns out to be the best use of the format to date. It’s the first time that I’ve seen where 3D was used genuinely, not as a gimmick to pad the box office receipts like so many others.
Of course none of that would mean anything without the tender story to take a piggyback ride on. Selznik’s original, and John Logan’s adaptation are beautifully crafted and seemingly tailor made for Scorsese’s historian sensibilities. You can feel every bit of Scorsese the skinny, bed-ridden boy in the ragamuffin Hugo, who is so alone and afraid of being sent to the orphanage by the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) that he doesn’t know what to do when he is presented with a friendship. And Isabelle, the story’s quasi-narrator, doesn’t fall into the trap of Hugo’s information crutch, even though she starts out an expository character. Chole Moretz rescues her with grace and cunning. She’s a bookworm’s bookworm, tough and loyal with a lot more Francie Nolan to her than Hermoine Granger (who needed a fair bit of saving from Emma Watson herself). But it’s Sorsese who is the real wizard here, whipping this all together with a superb eye, a deft hand and a whole lot of heart.