Never underestimate Martin Scorsese. Just because “Hugo” lacks in F-words doesn’t mean the master filmmaker is so out of his element that he couldn’t possibly put his stamp on this family-friendly film. In fact, “Hugo” might be the most personal of the director’s catalog.
Based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, “Hugo” begins as a period piece fairy tale mystery and blossoms into a love letter to cinema in unexpected yet charming ways. Brilliant 14-year-old actor Asa Butterfield stars as Hugo, an orphaned boy who lives in the walls of a Paris train station in the 1930s. Scorsese portrays this world as a living painting brimming with potential for adventure, and though what awaits behind the door comes grounded in fact more than fantasy, it’s not less magical.
The blue-eyed Butterfield wins hearts instantly as the lonely Hugo, a boy who lost his father (Jude Law), a clockmaker whose only legacy to his son ended up being a wind-up automaton that the two were working on putting back together. With the hope that the automaton will reveal a final message from his father (or psychiatrically speaking, give him closure), Hugo steals mechanical pieces from a toy-shop owner (Ben Kingsley) to fix the broken machine. But when the toy-shop owner seizes a notebook from Hugo containing detailed diagrams of the automaton, Hugo begins a quest that will bring him closer to solving the mystery than he ever imagined.
Hugo befriends and teams up with the toy-shop owners goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a wide-eyed bookworm with a self-proclaimed love of adventure and secrets. Considering this is the same girl that swore up a storm in the action-comedy “Kick-Ass,” the fact that she’s so convincingly pure and innocent is a true triumph. Scorsese chooses to show her and Butterfield as angels only faulted by their unguarded optimism.
The entire film ends up as a successful exercise in sweeping the audience into a heart-driven story and diverting attention from issues with some of the film’s more practical components such as plot cohesion and character motivation. To elaborate would spoil the film, but those unfamiliar with the source material would be interested to know that the story connects to the birth of film at the turn of the 20th Century, which in large part explains the interest of an auteur such as Scorsese.
Ironically or perhaps beautifully, “Hugo” also comes in 3D, and stunning 3D no less. Filmed in (not converted to) the extra dimension, not only does the film avoid issues of blurriness, but Scorsese also uses it to enhance the experience on numerous levels. Considering “Hugo” is far from an action film, the 3D must be utilized more creatively, and who better to experiment with this than Scorsese?
The depth of field that 3D enhances allows him to focus on certain objects in certain ways and do tracking shots that feel as if they’re literally moving somewhere. In one scene, Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays the train station’s inspector, leans over slowly as he verbally reprimands Hugo, and though slow and subtle, the way he inches slightly toward the audiences magnifies the anxiety we are to feel in that scene. As easy as it is to bash 3D for its gimmicky origins, “Hugo” proves that in the right hands, no film technique should ever be shunned.
The story’s picturesque innocence and more importantly heart drive the rest of the film. Hugo’s quest for purpose in life amidst his personal loneliness and tragedy lead him to discover others who in turn prove he’s not alone in these struggles. As he and Isabelle get closer and closer to their discovery, the film also asks us to recall the essence of motion picture filmmaking and reflect on its vitality. Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan beautifully emphasize this through the use of side characters in the train station, including Baron Cohen.
So although the number of physical high jinks as well as dogs and cats might be disproportionate compared to vintage Scorsese, he elevates this simple tale of friendship, discovery, movies and the reinvigoration of the human spirit to a place few can.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by John Logan, Brian Selznick (novel)
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen