Review: Magical ‘Hugo’ Uses New Technology to Tell Old-Fashioned Tale

By  · Published on November 23rd, 2011

It’s hard to overstate just how amazing it is to consider a big-budget, major studio-produced 3D family adventure centered on Georges Méliès. Before now, the work of the early cinematic innovator, whose movies (most famously 1903’s A Trip to the Moon) revolutionized and advanced special effects, has been relegated to film history texts and brief snippets of televised specials. If there’s one filmmaker to make Méliès matter again, to introduce him to a mass audience, it’s Martin Scorsese. After all, the Oscar-winning legend is not just one of the foremost cinematic masters, as a noted film preservationist, he’s among the chief protectors of the long, glorious and frequently threatened legacy of the motion picture.

In Hugo, Scorsese transforms the trappings of a 3D holiday picture into a loving tribute to Méliès and the earliest masters of the cinematic dream factory. From the structure of its narrative, to the details of its plot, and the industrialized nature of its majestic visuals, this is a film infused with the joy and wonder of movies.

Set amid the glittering magic of Paris in the early 1930s, the film follows 12-year-old orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who secretly lives in a train station. Hugo, who winds the station’s clocks, dwells inside a labyrinthine interior comprised of enormous grinding gears, rising steam currents, and other elaborate metallic concoctions. Among the latter is a non-functioning automaton brought home by Hugo’s late father (Jude Law), which the young man works on incessantly in the hope that he can bring it back to life.

At the same time, the protagonist actively avoids the stern station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), while coming into contact with a cranky toy shop owner named Georges (Ben Kingsley), and Georges’ precocious goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz).

It’s no great secret that Georges is, in fact, Méliès and it’s no accident that before discovering the old man’s true identity, Hugo and Isabelle fast become movie buffs. John Logan’s script, adapted from Brian Selznick’s book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” regards cinema as a metaphor for life. Just as so many crucial technical processes must go right for images to be projected onto a screen, the movie says, so too are we all essential parts of the machinery of existence. Over the course of the film, Hugo comes to understand the role he is meant to play in that vast framework.

Scorsese, working with cinematographer Robert Richardson and production designer Dante Ferretti, applies this principle to the look of the film. The filmmaker plays with three-dimensional perspective in the depiction of Hugo’s enormous industrialized home. The camera soars and darts through space, careening above the streets of Paris, climbing winding staircases that are dwarfed by heavy machinery and pulling up and away to frame the characters against the technological apparatuses that make this testament to modernity churn with life. Scorsese’s vision offers a meticulous representation of the various contours of architectural design that comprise the train station. The look of the film is defined by a wide collection of aesthetic influences, among them steampunk, M.C. Escher, the romanticized Paris of the movies, and a heavy dose of silent comedy’s playful expressiveness. It’s an all-in approach that presents a riveting amalgamation of many styles and sensibilities that have shaped Scorsese’s own relationship with cinema.

At the same time, the movie offers a compelling old-fashioned adventure, as Hugo and Isabelle strive to unlock the secrets of the automaton. In its free-spirited earnestness, the story stands apart from Scorsese’s usual muscular mode of storytelling, which tends to emphasize the violence caused by and visited upon flawed male characters. The filmmaker’s handling of the narrative shows a malleability that’s somewhat unexpected, as he forgoes any sort of temptation to muddy the innocent, permeable sense of discovery.

It’s a 3D production that cost a reported $170 million, but Hugo is a deeply personal work. After all, at its core, the film is really about Scorsese sharing with us, on a deep visceral level, his extraordinary affection for the medium that’s his passion, his profession, his everything.

The film, then, is a movie about why we go to the movies.

The resurrection of cinema’s earliest moments – the first showings of Lumière films, the kaleidoscopic frenzy of Méliès’ sets – harkens back to a period when movies seemed to be infused with limitless mystery. At the same time, it evokes the awe-inspiring, irreplaceable sensations that can only materialize when one sits in the dark with a projector’s flickering light overhead, transported away as magic unfolds onscreen.

The Upside: In its own way, this is a masterpiece that at least deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Martin Scorsese’s best.

The Downside: The movie drags ever so slightly during some parts of its first half or so.

On the Side: It’s amazing that Scorsese has made a 3D $170 million movie about Georges Méliès. A-ma-zing. Who said the auteur was dead?