Movie Review: Hugo


I knew very little about Hugo as I went in to see it this weekend.  What I did know;  it was Martin Scorsese’s first family film, his first in 3D, based on a 2007 children’s novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, and stars Chloe Grace Moretz and some kid who will eventually play Ender in the film version of Ender’s Game (Asa Butterfield).  Believing this to be a children’s movie… and a Scorsese one at that… I brought my youngest daughter with me (my older cinephile was spending some time shopping with Mrs. Blahg).  Much to my surprise, and pleasure, this is a children’s movie in so far as it stars children and has some lovely whimsical moments and visuals… but the subject matter will appeal to an adult… and will cause a Film lover (that is Film with a capital F) to weep with unfettered delight .

I don’t imagine a younger Scorsese could have made this movie.  Much as Spielberg has stated he could not make Close Encounters of the Third Kind today, he views the decisions made by the protagonist as a younger man’s decisions, Scorsese could not have made this love letter to cinema as a young man.  Young Scorsese pushed film forward by understanding the past… older Scorsese is informing the present by expressing and embracing the past.  Hugo begins in the 1930’s Paris… and in one way or another, ends with a celebration of film’s earliest genius.

Hugo Cabret is an orphan who lives behind the walls in a Paris train station.  He takes care of the clocks for his drunken lout of an uncle, Uncle Claude (a sadly underused Ray Winstone), while at the same time doing his best to avoid capture by the quirky and slap-sticky station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen).  Within the first few minutes we are introduced to Hugo’s world in the train station… and much of what we see plays out like a silent film… stories that he can view through the numbers of a large clock in the wall… stories that we don’t necessarily hear played out, but can understand every nuance along the way.

But, as often is the case with orphans in a Dickensian world, and make no mistake, this is meant to convey that world, Hugo must steal in order to survive… and although the station inspector is one hurdle, that is nothing compared to the owner of the toy shop, Georges (Ben Kingsley).  When Hugo is caught by Georges, he is introduced to Isabelle (Moretz), Georges’ goddaughter.

I suppose now is the time to mention the MacGuffin of the story… the main subject of the trailer, and what I thought was the key to the film… an automaton.  A small mechanical human robot that Hugo and his father were working on prior to his untimely death by backdraft.  Seeing as the trailer gives a bit of this away, I don’t feel as though I am spoiling.  In order for the automaton to work, it needs a specific heart shaped key… which happens to hang from Isabelle’s neck.

Where all of these pieces fit together is the magic of this film… and the story goes into directions and places that I had not expected.  Ultimately, this becomes a two hour commercial for film preservation (and I don’t mean that in a negative way at all).  It becomes a lesson in film history… in pioneering special effects… and about dreams, and the cinema’s ability to make those dreams reality in our waking hours.  Over the last couple of decades, it has become very clear that Martin Scorsese is probably the preeminent film historian of our times… this is his dissertation on the subject.

I should mention the use of 3D.  Most movies I’ve seen employing 3D use it for gimmicky purposes, or in its worst iterations, a cheap money grab.  A few films have managed to integrate the tech into the feel of the film, Avatar and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.  Now we can add Hugo to that latter list.

The immersion into Hugo’s world of gears and pendulums behind the walls in the train station is at once claustrophobic and liberating at the same time.  Another nod to film history are a few very specific camera angles used within the confines behind the clock faces… and the 3D is used to masterful effect here.  Not to mention a few moments throughout where we move from 2D to 3D… and the result draws us further into that place where dreams are created.

Go into Hugo with an open mind… an open heart… you will be rewarded.  If you are at all interested in seeing this film, see it in a theater in 3D.  The experience is integral to the story, and a thing of beauty to behold.  A Martin Scorsese art film, disguised as a children’s movie that will hopefully inform as much as entertain.  There are moments when I was able to lean over to my daughter and whisper, “this part is true”… and that made all the difference in the world.

Happy to see Moretz play a normal girl,
Cornelius J. Blahg

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