Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield, & Chloe Grace Moretz
MPAA: PG - For Mild Thematic Material, Some Action/Peril And Smoking]
There's a funny story behind the origin of film. The Lumiere Brothers of France created not only some of the first film cameras in the 1890s, but they were the first successful inventors of "moving pictures" in all of history. One of the first movies ever, L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (or The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station) was literally just a train arriving at a train station, but it struck a massive chord with its first viewers. When the train moved towards the camera, the audience panicked, believing that the train was going to jump out the screen at any moment, because it was unlike anything they'd ever seen in their entire lives. Leave it to Martin Scorsese, one of the greatest film-makers alive today, to recreate that classic scene, and use brand new technology such as 3D to rejuvenate that feeling that we are watching something extraordinary. With Hugo, Scorsese brings the magic of cinema to life, in what is one of the best movies of the entire year.
If you've seen the trailers and marketing for Hugo, you wouldn't be blamed if you simply just weren't appealed by it. I certainly wasn't. It looked like a whimsical children's fantasy, but in the sickening way like, say, the film adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events, or the recent and forgettable Narnia films. However, like how Quentin Tarantino tricked Grindhouse fanboys hoping for a bloody shoot-em-up into seeing one of the most dialogue-driven movies ever with Inglorious Basterds, Martin Scorsese's Hugo is actually a love-letter to silent cinema of the '20s and '30s.
Hugo is the story of an orphan boy named Hugo Cabret (natch), who lives within the walls of a Parisian train station operating the many clocks surrounding it and making sure they never desynchronize from time. His only source of food is snatching croissants from unsuspecting bakery owners, and his only means of entertainment are sneaking into the movie theater and gathering spare parts to fix up an "automaton" (i.e. robot) that his father was working on before leaving it unfinished when he passed away. Hugo's one wish in life is to finish what his father started years ago, hoping that it would lead him to a clue that could save him from his perpetual loneliness without a family.
That's all I'm going to describe of the plot. It's best to keep the rest of it unspoiled for the audience, but believe me, I will spoil it. But before I do so, let me go over some of the more base, non-spoilery aspects of what makes Hugo one of the year's best films.
The art direction is beyond stellar. Martin Scorsese's recreates 1930's Paris in a way that feels fantastical and beautiful all at once. The sets adhere less towards historical accuracy, and lean more towards a bright color palette that gives the film a whimsical atmosphere while still grounded enough in reality to keep the picture from going over-the-top.
The cinematography is simply stunning, and enhanced further by the 3D (which we'll describe more of in the spoiler section). The opening shots of the film begin with a high-angle establishing shot of Paris that looks glorious and epic in scope, then zooms directly into the train station passing by a myriad of passengers in a single take, and then finally twists and winds its way through hidden tunnels and passageways in such a fluid manner that sets your jaw on the floor.
All of the actors are wonderful. The child actors are charming without being cloying and irritating, while the adult actors hold their own playing the more secondary characters with all the personality and charm they can churn out. Sacha Baron Cohen, for example, brings out a surprising amount of depth to what could've been a one-note character. Ben Kingsley, in particular, brings up some of his best work as George the mysterious toy-store clerk. It's the best performance the knighted actor has ever brought out since The Wackness.
Now, after reading the plot synopsis above, it may not sound like much of a love-letter to silent films judging from that plot description, but that development is best left unspoiled for the viewer. And it's hard to describe what makes everything in this film tick into place without giving away major plot developments. So consider this a spoiler warning: I advise that those of you who haven't seen the film yet to not read the rest of this review until later. Go ahead and watch the movie. Right now. It's in my top 5 in the year. Seriously, I'll wait.
Okay, you're back? Good, let's get on with this...
It's hard to see what exactly it was about this particular story that intrigued Martin Scorsese enough to direct it, but it soon becomes clear that Hugo plays almost like a fictionalized autobiography of Martin Scorsese's life and how his passion for the movies grew. I was actually surprised to learn that the film was based on a novel called The Invention of Hugo Cabret, because it felt almost like so much of Scorsese's own life was put into the story.
For example, part of what made Scorsese so invested in film was how his asthma kept him from playing with kids outside, and had him spending most of his days absorbing as much film and television as he possibly could from the theaters and the television in his Little Italy apartment. When I see the film's title character Hugo waiting in that clocktower, observing the world through the windows, his only form of enjoyment in tinkering with the clocks in the station and sneaking into the theater to watch movies, I see Scorsese back at his apartment in Little Italy.
This is where the REALLY BIG SPOILERS come in: The film takes its silent movie tribute turn when we learn that the automaton is able to write a message that leads Hugo to George Melies, a man who hides behind the guise of a toy store clerk, but in reality is one of the cinema's first magicians ever. He literally invented special effects in the movies. And I don't just mean that within the movie's universe. George Melies was a real French filmmaker who invented the first special effects and created fantastical worlds that no other filmmaker dreamed of putting on celluloid at the time. Without him, there would be no Avatar, no Lord of the Rings, no Harry Potter, and, yes, no Star Wars. How appropriate then, for Martin Scorsese to make his first 3D film about the man who pretty much invented the use of visual trickery in the movies.
Now here's where I SPOIL THE ENDING for you all (Seriously, I can see you there, people who didn't actually see the movie but are reading my review anyway! I know you're there!) The film ends with Hugo literally reviving George Melies career by saving and restoring several of Melies's prints that were thought to be lost for centuries. When we see Hugo reintroducing the magic of Melies's films to the world, we also see Scorsese doing the same with Michael Powell when he brought forth a restored print of one of his favorite films of all time, The Red Shoes, as well as a misunderstood gem Peeping Tom.
The way the film parallels with real life is clever without trying to hard because it comes from a genuine and intimate place in Scorsese's heart. Scorsese seems like one of those people who just lives and breathes off of movies, much like Roger Ebert and Quentin Tarantino, and his unabashed love shows in spades. Some of my favorite moments in Hugo involved characters simply just watching a short movie together, with the camera lingering onto each of the characters' reactions on their faces to what was being shown on screen. Everything from the excitement, the wonder, and the joy we feel from the movies is displayed in a beautiful and heartfelt way. It reminds us why we go to the movies, and what it is that we love so much about them.
One more thing before I leave: This is literally the best use of 3D I have ever seen in a film. No seriously, it trumps Avatar. At the time of this writing, there are only three films that I'd ever consider as good representations of how 3D can improve on a film. The first was, of course, James Cameron's Avatar, which used the technology to further immerse viewers into Cameron's fantastical and imaginative universe. Then with Dreamworks Animations' How To Train Your Dragon, which used it to create some impressively thrilling action sequences that enhanced the danger of its conflicts. And now we have Hugo which is the first film that uses 3D to enhance a film thematically as well as visually.
Like I said, it was appropriate that a film about George Melies, a master at tricking the eyes with his revolutionary films, would be made in 3D, which is literally made with a visual eye-trick that goes on directly behind the headache-inducing glasses. It enhances the film's theme of the magic of cinema, and how it brings us closer to our dreams. It also helps that it makes an exceptional use of depth. There was a spectacular shot in which the camera stares down a long stairway in the clocktower, the abyss seeming more threatening and huge thanks to the depth provided from 3D.
It also works with the film's message on the importance of revitalizing classic films (a cause that Scorsese himself is always hard at work on since creating The Film Foundation). With many classic moments from other silent films being faithfully recreated or paid homage to, but with a fresh new look to them. Hell, even the poster depicting Hugo dangling from the long hand of a giant clock is lifted from the silent comedy Safety Last!. Look and see for yourself.
Simply put, if you've ever loved movies, you simply must go see Hugo. Scorsese wishes to share that love with you, and remind you of why you go to see them in the first place.
Final Verdict: Hugo is equal parts a deeply personal life-story of Scorsese, celebration of the movies, and a whimsical fable that children and parents alike will enjoy. Breathtaking camerawork and 3D usage, stellar performances from all of its actors, and emotionally satisfying and heartfelt in every way. Hugo embodies the magic of the cinema.
That is all. See ya next time. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to fly myself into the eye of the moon. OBSCURE SILENT FILM REFERENCES ARE FUN, GUYS!!.........GUYS?!?!.....Guys?....guys....gais......