Film Review: Hugo

Visually dazzling fantasy is both a 3D landmark and a warm personal tribute by Martin Scorsese to early movie pioneer Georges Méliès.

When did silent films suddenly become in vogue? On the same week that surefire awards contender (and actual silent movie) The Artist makes its debut in U.S. theatres, here comes Martin Scorsese’s heartfelt tribute to the pre-sound era and one of its greatest pioneers, the wizardly Georges Méliès. But Hugo isn’t just a nostalgic valentine; while offering a tutorial on the pleasures of a bygone format, it also represents the absolute cutting edge of 21st-century moviemaking. It’s the most dynamic 3D production since Avatar, a visual knockout in which a movie veteran (and 3D novice) reveals a natural gift for coaxing maximum impact from that extra dimension.

Hugo is also Scorsese’s first PG-rated film in 18 years and his first “children’s” movie. While that may make it a very uncharacteristic work from the creator of such violent hallmarks as Taxi Driver, GoodFellas and The Departed, this is nonetheless one of the most personal films in the Scorsese canon. In its celebration of the magic of the movies and in particular the artistry of silent cinema, it’s like an extension of the director’s documentary surveys of American and Italian films. That may be heady content for a big-budget, family-oriented movie, and may be an obstacle for mainstream acceptance, but audiences receptive to the visual imagination of a great filmmaker at the top of his game will be amply rewarded.

Based on Brian Selznick’s illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Hugo centers on the titular young orphan who lives in secret within the walls of a vast train station in 1931 Paris, where he has taken over his missing uncle’s job of maintaining the station’s intricate clock mechanism. A scrappy survivor, Hugo meets his match in Georges, the stern proprietor of the station’s toy shop, who catches the boy attempting to steal a mechanical mouse and forces him to come work for him. Hugo also becomes friends with Georges’ feisty goddaughter Isabelle, and is startled to discover that she possesses a heart-shaped key that may very well fit the mechanical man that is Hugo’s prized inheritance from his late, beloved father. Eventually, Hugo and Isabelle both learn that beaten-down Georges is none other than Georges Méliès, a forgotten genius of the movies’ very first decade.

As a narrative, the screenplay by John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Rango) is basically a peg on which to hang Scorsese’s tribute to one of cinema’s founding fathers. Hugo’s main nemesis is the dogged but incompetent station inspector, a crippled war veteran obsessed with rounding up orphans who invade his turf. There’s never much doubt that Hugo will triumph and that his initiative will help change the life of Georges, so embittered by the reversals of his life that he shudders at the sight of any mementos of his past glories.

What’s lost in suspense or storytelling complexity is compensated for by Scorsese and his production team’s robust visual imagination. The great production designer Dante Ferretti, in his eighth collaboration with Scorsese, created a breathtaking, full-scale train station for the film, teeming with life and vivid period details, along with the hidden clockwork wonderland behind its walls. He also replicates the fanciful set designs of Méliès himself in delightful flashbacks depicting the director in his heyday. Visual-effects supervisor Rob Legato’s images are so photorealistic, you can’t tell where Ferretti’s work ends and his begins. Another essential craftsman is cinematographer Robert Richardson (The Aviator, Inglourious Basterds), who brings super-crisp depth-of-field to the movie’s dazzling 3D universe. Whether it’s the hundreds of extras milling about the station or a looming close-up of the inspector, the 3D images constantly burst the boundaries of the screen.

Young Asa Butterfield (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) is highly sympathetic as the unlucky but plucky Hugo, and Chloë Grace Moretz is poised and appealing as Isabelle, a refreshing change from her dark, gritty, startling performances in Kick-Ass and Let Me In. Ben Kingsley is inspired casting as Méliès, maintaining a twinkle of mischief even as Georges mourns the shell of a man he has become. Sacha Baron Cohen brings an amusing ungainliness to the slightly demented inspector, but would have been more effective in smaller doses. Helen McCrory (Cherie Blair in The Queen) is charming as Méliès’ wife and former muse Jeanne, 89-year-old Christopher Lee is a welcome sight as a kind bookshop proprietor, and History Boys co-stars Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour have a small, lovely subplot as tentative lovers who work at the station.

Amazingly, as portrayed in the film, George Méliès really did sell his film prints to be melted into chemicals after his style fell out of favor, and he really did run a toy shop in Paris’ Gare Montparnasse in the 1920s. Happily, as the movie shows, he was rediscovered and feted in the 1930s. If Hugo plays a role in a new generation’s discovery of this seminal inventor and filmmaker, that achievement will be no less gratifying than its vivid demonstration of today’s technological wonders.