Hugo (2011)

I know that my daughter really liked The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznik, but I hadn't read it. So I sat down to watch Hugo (the first time) knowing nothing. And waited for the story to announce itself, to tell me what it would be about. Instead, Hugo invited me to watch a world unfold, a world full of small and big mysteries, small and big tragedies, small and big dreams of a happy ending for an orphan living in a 1930s train station.

Much is made by the marketing plan of the fact that Hugo is directed by the legendary Martin Scorsese, as if the advertising folks couldn't figure out how to sell it otherwise. But the book--highly regarded and widely read--had no such name dropping power and did just fine. So in my opinion the marketing folks blew it and scared off many potential viewers with the implication that it's "arty." This is first and foremost a movie for kids and open-hearted adults. It's secondary that it is also likely to knock the socks off those who love film.

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan living in the forgotten areas of a 1930s Paris train station. We don't yet know how that came to be. He is desperately trying to fix an automaton--a wind-up "robot" that will write out a message. He is living in a time when orphans go to orphanages and abandon all hope of happiness. So he has been winding and mending the train station clocks, living hand to mouth and working on his automaton--but we don't know why. 

He is caught stealing a wind-up part from the toy shop kiosk vendor, Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley). One word to the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Hugo would be off to the orphanage. When Melies discovers a notebook full of schematics and notes amongst Hugo's possessions he is deeply disturbed. He confiscates the notebook, then tells the unhelpful Hugo he will burn it. When he presents a pile of ash to Hugo we don't know why an adult would do such a cruel thing over some drawings. Melies' granddaughter, Isabelle, being a forthright girl out for some adventure, befriends Hugo. She is deeply disturbed by all these mysteries and, as it turns out, is our narrator for this story.

The story goes into Melies' past, into the earliest days of film making, into what makes up dreams and how we answer the question "why do I exist?" The automaton is broken, so is Hugo--and so is Melies. It's a story about things being fixed. Small things and big things. It also takes the time to show the rich, little moments that make up life: failed conversations, persistence in friendship, gestures of kindness, flashes of meanness. We see these mostly through Hugo's wide-open eyes as he watches the life of the station shopkeepers and passengers.

The performances are all of the "just right" variety, especially in the secondary characters. Cohen's station inspector is comic, but not so much he is robbed of having his own story to tell or lacking in menace. For several characters you might be wondering, "Who did they play in Harry Potter?" Some big names carry some small parts, such as Christopher Lee, whose Labisse is a bookseller who knows exactly where the right book is to be found in his (bibliophile's dream of a) shop, or at the library ("on the right, top shelf"). Jude Law is also just right for his brief appearance as Hugo's father. Helen McCrory (known to many as Draco Malfoy's mother) is spot on as Melies' devoted wife and muse, and she plays ages 25 to 60 with some excellent makeup as well as her own attention to posture and facial expression. Kingsley is convincing--and moving--as the despairing, wounded Melies. Last, and truly not least, is the delightful score by Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings among many others) which sets the era of 1930s bistro Paris off to perfection.

Now if that's not enough to get you out to the theater for an ideal family film experience, how about this? I and my family happily saw it again, this time in 3D, and we went with more family, with a total age range of 8 to 52. Not one of us was bored. When, at a crucial moment, it appears that all is lost for Hugo, it sounded to me like the entire theater gasped. This is not a story that clonks you over the head and says "watch me!" Instead, it spreads out in rich golden colors against the backdrop of winter Paris--so vibrant and so cold--and invites you to watch life, as Hugo does. Watch broken people find repairs, to be wound up and have restored their purpose and meaning.

So I know you're still wondering about the Scorsese angle. Why did he direct a kids' film, finally? I am guessing that his own love of film, art and creativity drew him to the story. The sequences dealing with early film are simply magical. But beyond that, it has the elements of being a period piece, which he clearly loves (think Gangs of New York or The Age of Innocence) and the intricacies of human motivation (think The Departed, Raging Bull or even Taxi Driver). Scorsese has always loved the human face and lets his actors tell a story with their eyes. Having seen both the regular and 3D versions, I found elements of the 3D version simply breathtaking. I agree wholeheartedly with Roger Ebert, whose review of Hugo said that he at last understood what 3D could do in the hands of a genius. Nevertheless, the regular version was equally impressive. (You can have a peek at the trailers and some behind-the-scenes footage at the official Hugo site, but fair warning, it is way top heavy in graphics and animation before you even get to watching a trailer.)

There is no doubt that Scorsese's genius runs through every frame of the film. He blends magical realism with live action, giving the story a sheen of fantasy while staying grounded enough that we believe this story might actually have happened. There are magnificent imaginings and visual angles of the large clock works that run the station as well as the small gears and levers that run an automaton. Clearly, there is a love of ticking, clicking things. Scorsese's genius is there in how he illuminates the small and big frame, and how to use a metaphor without getting lost in it, such as the circles and turning objects representing the circling, overlapping lives. But he doesn't get in the way of the story and he lets Hugo carry us through. The film is full of art and beauty but the kind that delights rather than daunts.

Why the marketing people decided on a "made by Martin Scorsese" emphasis to sell Hugo is a mystery to me. Kids don't care about that--and far too many adults don't know the name. The ticket sales have been lacklustre and I suspect the fear of "an art film" is keeping many parents and their kids away. It's a real shame. 

This is, in many ways, an updated Oliver Twist. We see Hugo's exceptional skills and his good heart. We want him to find a place in the world, to be okay. There are no bad guys to vanquish, only bad emotions: despair, vindictiveness and cruelty. Hugo fixes them all, and both times I left the theater wondering how a quiet story could be so captivating and satisfying.

Hugo (2011) at IMDB

One-Line Summary Hugo (2011): An orphan in 1930s Paris looks out at the world from his perch in the train station's clocks, desperate to fix his broken automaton...and his broken life.

What's It Worth? Hugo (2011): I happily saw it twice in the theater and will look for the DVD when the studio deigns to release it to such an old-fashioned format. Satisfying and magical without cloying sentimentalism or a loud pyrotechnics. Big Screen

Watch it Again? Hugo (2011): Having already seen it twice, it's clear I would watch it again, and I will. ridiculously lots