HUGO (2011) (****)
What could a 3-D family film from Martin Scorsese be like? With HUGO now as an example, the answer is magical. And it's a magic that Scorsese is best suited to bring to life — the magic of the movies. At one point, a young boy visits a movie studio and the director leans down to him and tells him if he's ever wondered where his dreams come from this is where they are made.
Based on Brian Selznick's celebrated illustrated novel THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET, the story follows its title character (Asa Butterfield, THE BOY WITH THE STRIPED PAJAMAS) as he survives as an orphan in the clockworks of a Paris train station. After his father (Jude Law, A.I.), a clock maker, died, he has been trying to finish a project they were working on together — fixing an automaton. This mechanical human is a complex one that seems to be designed to write something and Hugo believes it will give him a message from his dad. But the boy loses his notebook filled with calculations to Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley, GANDHI) after the toyshop owner catches him trying to steal. What Hugo doesn't know is that Georges is Georges Melies, the once famed filmmaker who is best known for A TRIP TO THE MOON, where a rocket sticks into the eye of the man on the moon.
In order to get his book back, Hugo befriends Georges' goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz, KICK-ASS), who loves secrets and adventures. Their friendship soon grows around fixing the automaton, which they discover has connections to Isabelle's heart shaped key, Papa Georges and his wife Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory, INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE). Hugo shares his philosophy that the world is one big machine and because no machine has extra parts, everyone must have a purpose. He is struggling to find his though. Isabelle suggests that he is meant to fix things.
Every moment is filled with the joy of filmmaking. Leave it to a master filmmaker like Scorsese to transform the novelty of 3-D into something more. We've seen dozens of versions of epic clockworks, but never with this kind of tension. The heights and whirling gears seem far more threatening. Take the Lumiere brothers' pioneering 1897 film ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN AT LA CIOTAT. It was just a train arriving in the station approaching the camera, but when it was screened for the first time people were frightened as the locomotive came toward them. Using 21st century 3-D filmmaking techniques, Scorsese recreates this sensation for an audience with film in their DNA.
For the film buffs, Scorsese works in references to a great deal of Melies' work, as well as another famous clock scene from Harold Lloyd's SAFETY LAST to stick with the theme of time. When the automaton isn't working, Hugo says that it is just waiting to do what it was meant to do and we can't help but believe this also refers to Melies. Before cinema, he was a magician and he brought his talent for illusion to film as a profound innovator in special effects. After WWI, tastes changed and his films weren't popular anymore. Desperate for money, he sold most of his films to a company that melted them down to make shoe heals. Preservationist Scorsese comes through loud and clear.
But this isn't just a history lesson about film — it captures the joy of film from the creator to the spectator. The surreal version of Paris glows electric and has a touch of steam punk to it too. Films bring people together to share experiences. In this film, Hugo brings people together. He watches stories unfold in his station. Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths, WITHNAIL & I) can't seem to get a moment with Madame Emilie (France de la Tour, HARRY POTTER) because of her snippy dog. The station inspector, played by Sacha Baron Cohen (BORAT) in full on Peter Sellers mode, is obsessed with catching thieves, but can the sweet flower girl Lisette (Emily Mortimer, MATCH POINT) make him smile? Can Hugo make Georges accept his past and do what he is meant to do?
Now that I've seen this film I couldn't think of a better filmmaker to have made it. Scorsese has recreated past worlds in films like THE AGE OF INNOCENCE and GANGS OF NEW YORK, but not like he's done with 1930s Paris. He's done comedy before in AFTER HOURS, but not like the classic slapstick and word play as he does here. He's dealt with real life figures in films like RAGING BULL and THE AVIATOR, but not like the loving tribute he pays to Melies, whose work is the reason we have a film like HUGO. This film leaves no doubt what Martin Scorsese was meant to do.