Luminary director Martin Scorsese broke new personal ground on two counts with Hugo; it was his first family film, and his first foray into the use of 3D. It is fitting that in the light of these signs of cinematic change that Hugo is largely a love letter to film. And it is an intoxicating one.
The titular character is orphaned tinker Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who maintains the clocks of the Gare Montparnasse railway station in Paris. As he attempts to fix a clockwork automaton, he must avoid the overcompensatory policing of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Inspector, and inadvertently uncovers a mystery tied to the earliest days of cinema.
Most of the second act of the film, in fact, is devoted to the latter concept, gently obsessing with pre-Great War cinema. Many vintage works are alluded to, everything from The Great Train Robbery to Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (a particular thrill for me) to Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune. There is also an undercurrent of sadness regarding lost art, as some film’s celluloid was melted down and repurposed. That anxiety will be familiar to any Doctor Who fan mourning the loss of 97 episodes. This part of this film is all great fun to watch, but it also leads to my biggest criticism of the film: John Logan’s script hits its themes with a hammer. Films are the stuff of evergreen daytime dreams, films are wonderful magic tricks, people as well as machines can be broken, we get it. This is actually fairly typical of a Logan script. You will never be left in doubt of his script’s themes, because they often might as well be shouted to the cheap seats.
But the film is not so insular that it resembles a documentary on early film. Hugo is also very much concerned with human connection. And that means prime character development! There are at least three (arguably four) romantic pairings to track throughout the film, spanning characters both major and supporting. We see bonds form, stagnate, and renew in a way that is sentimental and uplifting. That relative softness is part and parcel of the film, but it is not a detriment; there’s something wonderful about the fact that every antagonistic force here is humanized. Yes, even the comically stylized Baron Cohen lawman. The way these threads quietly progress, sometimes in the background of the main action, is a device like an infinitely less in-your-face microcosm of Love, Actually.
No character is left without attention, and I would be remiss if I didn’t bring the focus back to Butterfield’s Hugo and Chloë Grace Moretz’ bookworm Isabelle, who bring to life wonderful child characters who feel very real. The actors are adorable, but they also bring real meat to their characters. Hugo is a very typical protagonist in this type of fantasia, the orphan with daddy issues and a goal whose solution is conveniently wedged into the plot through coincidence. But Butterfield shows great interiority, rising above other child actors who might break character from time to time. Moretz reaffirms her natural screen presence and charm already established in Kick-Ass. She’s a fantastic rising talent equally at home in horrific and humorous roles. Taking a moment to touch on the continuity of film’s recent past and present, Butterfield reminds me of a new generation’s Elijah Wood, and Moretz in this particular role brings to mind Emma Watson in the early Harry Potters.
Scorsese uses obvious clockwork imagery and takes this visual motif quite far, but he doesn’t use it as a crutch. The sense of place at the railway station is effective, with its nooks, crannies, and its press of humanity being a kind of character itself. Scorsese creates a world both lived-in and polished, never letting the visual style descend into caricature. Howard Shore composes an indelible score for a finishing touch of magic (even if he repurposes a bit of his own Merry and Pippin cue from The Lord of the Rings for moments of levity).
Hugo is an accomplished film, engaging, inventive and charming in the highest fashion, enhanced by an outstanding, well-rounded cast. I can only find fault in some of the repetition of the screenplay’s themes, and your milage may vary with regard to the film’s preoccupation with certain motifs. But in my opinion, this beautiful film’s warmth definitely makes it out to the audience. 9/10.
P.S.: In both this 2011 film and 2013’s (brilliant) Iron Man 3, Ben Kingsley appears (however briefly in Hugo) as a fu manchu caricature. What a truly bizarre happenstance.