I have to cut Martin Scorsese some slack for his foray into family entertainment. I saw him on The Daily Show the other night and he confessed a couple of reasons as to why he made Hugo. One was because his wife hounded him to make "something that everyone can see" and then his 12-year-old daughter requested it be made in 3-D. Secondly, he wanted to make a love letter to the birth of filmmaking honoring Georges Melies (1902's A Trip to the Moon), the inventor of fantasy and science fiction in cinema, based on Brian Selznick's 2007 novel The Invention Of Hugo Cabret. So while we get a kids' fantasy ripe with mystery, we also get a cinematic history lesson. It's a tricky balancing act and Scorsese handles it with panache, delivering a magically imaginative mini-masterpiece that uses 3-D not as a gimmick but rather for wondrous enhancement.
I saw Melies' infamous Trip to the Moon when I was in film school. Ingenious and way ahead of his time, Melies took experimental film to the limits. It's no wonder that Scorsese is fascinated with this brilliant reclusive filmmaker and who better than Scorsese to use wild camera shots and mesmerizing 3-D to tell the story of the man who invented special effects.
The simple tale takes place in a train station circa 1930s Paris where Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives in the walls, hides out and winds the clocks. Orphaned and alone, Hugo's more important task is to protect a broken automaton (a robotic life-size toy) and notebook left to him by his late father. Begrudgingly befriended by a curmudgeonly toy merchant (Ben Kingsley), Hugo then accompanies the toy maker's goddaughter (Chloe Grace Moretz) as they embark on a quest to solve the mystery of the automaton and find a place he can call home.
Spattered with an array of cameos, some culled from the Scorsese alumni, Hugo's cast includes Ray Whinstone, Emily Mortimer, Jude Law, Christopher Lee, Michael Stuhlbarg and Helen McCrory. With stand-out performances from Butterfield, (Son of Rambow/The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) and Moretz, (Kick-ass!/Let Me In) it's actually Sasha Baron Cohen (Borat/Bruno) as the dastardly stationmaster who shines the most, continuing to impress with his subdued comic timing.
Beginning with a sweeping opening aerial shot that plunges you into the wildly choreographed bustle of the train station, Hugo is artistic beyond reproach. Within the spinning gears, springs, shutters, wheels, tracks and clock pendulums, 3-D really works here. Dazzlingly combining the early days of cinema with the latest big-screen technology, the visuals are mesmerizing right down to close-ups of the stationmaster's Doberman. What Scorsese creates is a phenomenal blend of fantasy and mystery that will appeal to adults as well as children. Don't think Scorsese's crusade to preserve old films from either being ruined by time or destroyed by misuse will go unnoticed. Not only is Hugo an homage to a simpler cinematic time, it's also a lesson in restoring faith in film, not to mention the focus on film restoration itself.
With Hugo, Scorsese transports audiences to a place beyond belief and exposes the gentler side of his artistic scope. Don't get me wrong, I have a profound appreciation for Marty's blood spurting shotgun blasts and Bic pen stabbings, but in this passionate cinematic love letter, it's never been clearer how much he loves movies. Now, after this melancholy little ditty and his family satiated, Scorsese can go back to making something mob oriented that will amp up the body count.
3 and 1/2 Stars
Starring Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz,
Directed by Martin Scorsese