March 1, 2012

"Hugo" Movie Review

 

"Thank you for the movie. It was a gift." 

These words, spoken by Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz, Kick-A$*) to Hugo (Asa Butterfield, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Son of Rambow) after a viewing of Harold Lloyd's silent film Safety Last, help to capture what is absolutely masterful about Hugo, Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese's first foray into 3-D filmmaking and his first ever true family film. Based upon a 2007 young adult novel by John Logan called "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," Hugo feels like a passion picture for Scorsese, a film that celebrates everything in life and cinema that truly means something to the acclaimed director and film preservationist. 

When delivered, the line is a throw-away line spoken by a young girl who has just witnessed her first film and who struggles with how to say goodbye properly to this strange young boy with an adventurous spirit. She doesn't fully understand his story at that point, but she seems to have already clued into something special inside young Hugo. 

The story takes place in 1930's Paris, where Hugo lives with his father (Jude Law) who is in charge of the massive clocks within an extraordinary Parisian train station. During free time, father and son work together trying to bring life to an automaton, an automated man rescued from a museum. When tragedy strikes, Hugo is left in the care of his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone) who disappears rather quickly and leaves the young man to fend for himself. Rather than be shipped off to the orphanage, Hugo creates a world unto himself within the walls of the stories tall train station timepieces and going unnoticed as he faithfully maintains them and rises to the surface, for the most part, only to swipe a croissant from a train station bakery, pilfer parts for the automaton or, on occasion, venture out into the neighborhood moviehouse to escape from the harsh realities of his daily existence. 

Hugo must be constantly on guard against the watchful eyes of Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), the train station's inspector who takes great delight in catching orphans and shipping them off to the orphanage, and Georges (Ben Kingsley), the toy store owner from which he pilfers most of his mechanical parts. 

It makes sense that Hugo takes place in Paris, because it is in Europe where the vast majority of truly great family and children's films are created. While there have certainly been exceptions, most notably Pixar's animated features, for the most part American cinema has been devoid of intelligent, entertaining and spirited children's films. If you'd ever told me that the director who would break this tradition would be Martin Scorsese, I'd have laughed heartily. 

Yet, indeed, it is Martin Scorsese. 

It is Martin Scorsese who has managed to use 3-D the way it should be used, as a canvas upon which to tell the story rather than as a distraction, novelty or, even worse, as the story itself. While there's certainly an argument that viewing the 3-D version of Hugo isn't necessary, it's masterful in the ways in which Scorsese manages to flesh out the stories of each character utilizing 3-D. Seldom have I felt so immersed within the framework of a film as I experienced with Hugo, where I felt myself sitting amidst the action as Gustav, a quietly embittered station inspector left injured during the war, hobbled himself hurriedly whenever he would lay his eyes upon Hugo or any other street urchin . . . or when Hugo himself climbed the seemingly endless series of steps leading to areas of the train station long since abandoned . . . or when the camera would pan out over the wondrous Parisian landscape with views of the city, the Eiffel Tower and so much more. 

The beauty, it seemed, was never ending. 

Hugo often has a Dickensian quality about it, tis' a film that can be dark and dreary, wild and wonderful all in the same cinematic breath. While Hugo is a far from unsightly lad, his story closely resembles that of the Phantom of the Opera or Hunchback of Notre Dame, especially given the setting of 1930's Paris when orphans were still poorly regarded and seen as nothing more than thieves. Hugo himself even brings to mind a bit of Oliver Twist in the sense that he is both quite the adventurer and a young boy who believes in his own ability to transcend despite living in a world that would believe otherwise. 

Asa Butterfield, who was simply magnificent in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and the far too under-seen Son of Rambow, is also a delight as 12-year-old Hugo Cabret despite a start that at least seems to contain a hint of stiffness. Nevertheless, Butterfield rather quickly relaxes into this role and does so, at least it would seem, as he is able to more and more relax into his newfound friendship and the outside world. Chloe Moretz, who leaped to fame with her performances in Kick-A*$ and Let Me In, proves here that she's able to convincingly go the more traditional route as young Isabelle, who was orphaned herself yet taken in by her godfather Georges, the toy store owner, and his wife (Helen McCrory). 

Watch the trailer here.

Were Hugo simply a beautiful tale of a young boy's adventures living deep within the bowels of a cavernous train station, it would suffice as a remarkable little film. Yet, Scorsese has accomplished so much more with the film by bringing into the mix the story of Hugo's efforts to restore to esteem the man, Georges, that he soon learns is THE Georges Melies, a real life filmmaker who is given much credit for having invented the idea of sci-fi and fantasy filmmaking and who, in fact, really did start the first ever film studio. Seamlessly, Scorsese incorporates scene after scene of Melies' works into the fabric of Hugo in a way that brings remarkable depth to the story without ever losing the child-like wonder and innocence that will captivate children who see the film. 

While Scorsese never loses sight that the kids are the stars of this film, he has also cast the supporting players spotlessly with especially strong performances turned in by Sacha Baron Cohen, who embodies Gustav as a war weary veteran without family whose longing for connection is triggered by an beautiful flower girl (played quite sweetly by Emily Mortimer). Ben Kingsley, as well, is clearly inspired with his best role in awhile and simply comes to life as Melies, capturing both the woundedness at believing himself forgotten and the dreamer inside himself who cannot possibly be extinguished. 

The film's technical achievements are simply stellar, far above that which is usually found in live-action children's cinema. Dante Ferretti's production design is exceptional, texturing beautifully the urban Parisian setting and creating the perfect world in which technology and authenticity can warmly embrace. D.P. Robert Richardson's lensing is extraordinary in the way that Richardson journeys from wide, sweeping vistas to ultra close-ups and excitingly captured chase sequences that take full advantage of 3-D imaging without ever becoming dominated by it. Rob Legato's special effects are top notch, while Howard Shore's original score is among the year's best. One seemingly odd choice was to utilize nearly all British accents speaking English for a film that is set in Paris yet, perhaps, this was the perfect choice given the casting choices. It was only a momentary distraction before the world of Hugo Cabret kept me completely enthralled. 

There are some cinematic experiences that nearly defy description, and it feels difficult to do justice to Scorsese's Hugo, a film that is simultaneously entertaining, intelligent, emotionally resonant and technologically dazzling. Unlike any film he has ever made, Hugo may better than any other film he's ever made capture the full cinematic rainbow of Scorsese's remarkable career. 

One can only hope that, like this young boy named Hugo who embraced an older man's dream and handed it back to him, that you will find yourself this weekend entering the incredible world of Hugo Cabret and celebrating the mastery of a filmmaker who believes that cinema is the landscape of dreams and, yes, dreams do still come true. 

Originally Published: March 1, 2012
Category: Film
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