HUGO"I'd imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn't be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason."
-- Hugo Cabret
Hugo is a 2011 family film directed by Martin Scorsese that's based off the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. The story follows a young boy named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who started living in a train station after being orphaned by his father's (Jude Law) death. His father left him a strange automaton that will supposedly write when it is working properly, and Hugo believes his father programmed the robotic creation to write him a message should he ever be able to fix it. He steals bits and pieces to fix the automaton from a toymaker (Ben Kingsley) in the station until the man catches him and takes away the notebook with the robot's schematics. In an attempt to retrieve the notebook, Hugo follows the man home and enlists the help of his goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), who is fascinated by Hugo's livelihood. In their attempt to find the notebook, the two start to realize that there is a deeper story behind the automaton that involves Isabelle's godfather, and they embark on an adventure to find the secrets that lay behind this automaton's mechanical creation.
When I first heard about Hugo, I was a tad bit perplexed as to how it was going to be created. Considering Martin Scorsese has made a career on creating some of the most famous gangster films that contain a slew of adult-only themes, I was fascinated to see how he might handle some more family-friendly fare. The film opened to fantastic reviews - it currently holds a 93% approval rating on Rottentomatoes.com - and has started to receive some high-profile nominations from upcoming awards ceremonies, so it was only a matter of time until I was able to give the film a viewing.
My first reaction to the film has to be one of utter amazement. While I had my doubts going into the film, every one of them was silenced about halfway through. At its base, Hugo is a movie about movies. The first half of the story shows our main characters trying to figure out the meaning behind this automaton, but when it finally yields some sort of message, the film takes a different direction entirely. It leads towards Kingsley's character, who turns out to be none other than Georges Méliès. For those of you cinephiles like myself, that name should easily ring a bell. One of the grandfathers of filmmaking, Méliès was the man who brought us hundreds of short films, most famously Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), in the early 20th century. Here's that aforementioned short film, which I'm sure many of you will recognize:
The swing in the story sparked a number of reactions from me, but most fascinating was the emotional reaction I had to the realization that Kingsley was portraying Méliès. Had I taken the time to look at the cast credits on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), I would have known this beforehand; because I had not, however, it came as quite the pleasant surprise. The inclusion of this material put an entirely different frame around the film. It went from being just a story about a boy trying to find his place in the world to a story of a boy trying to find his place in the world by bringing an old man a little bit of magic from his past. The context of the film shifts to the life of Méliès, which is followed rather religiously, portraying mostly fact rather than delving into Hollywood exaggeration. The look at early cinematic history was so strong and so beautifully-crafted that I couldn't help but tear up from time to time during the film. It's quite the emotional experience for a film fan like myself.
Let's not forget about the acting though, shall we? Our two young leads - Butterfield and Moretz - are simply fantastic as our central protagonists, and they play off one another well. I've been saying for a while that Moretz is going to be the next big thing on the Hollywood scene, and she's taking another huge step in that direction with her role here. Butterfield, of whom I had not heard prior to seeing this film, also managed to "wow" me with his portrayal of the titular character. Kingsley is at his finest, and although it's not the best role of his career, I'd argue it's easily in the top five. His character experiences the full spectrum of emotion, and Kingsley remains believable throughout it all. We're also getting some great supporting performances from the likes of Christopher Lee, Emily Mortimer and Helen McCrory, and be on the lookout for Ray Winstone in a cameo appearance. Law does well with his limited screentime, and we even get a fine, albeit a little too small, performance from Michael Stuhlbarg (of A Serious Man fame). My only real issue with the casting was that of Sacha Baron Cohen who seemed a little too over-the-top in his role. It works within the constructs of the film, but at times, he's just a little too much.
I'd also like to reference Howard Shore's fanciful score that truly sets the mood for the film. The film takes place in Paris, and Shore is able to create a score that both stands on its own but also brings a very Parisian feel. Despite the fact that we're located in Paris, we're only reminded of it on a few small occasions. The rest of the film takes place indoors - mostly inside the train station - so it's often difficult to remember exactly where we are. However, with Shore's score leading the way, it's impossible to forget our location and the importance it plays in the overall story of the film. Here's just a snippet of the soundtrack, for your listening pleasure:
Ultimately, Hugo is one of the best films I've seen this year, and it should stand as one of the greatest films I've had the privilege to see in my lifetime. Martin Scorsese has had a long and storied career, and he has given the world a slew of fantastic films to think about and talk about and enjoy over the years, but he just may have created his best film to date with this one. I know that's a rather tall order considering his personal filmography, but I'm going to go out on a limb and take the stance regardless of what anyone else happens to think. At its heart, Hugo is a brilliant film that's going to pander to cinephiles more than a casual fan, but there's still quite a bit to love for a viewer of any age.
I'd like to leave you with the critical consensus from Rottentomatoes.com, because I'm not sure I could possibly put it more eloquently:
Hugo is an extravagant, elegant fantasy with an innocence lacking in many modern kids' movies, and one that emanates an unabashed love for the magic of cinema.If you love film and the magic it has created in the over one hundred years since its inception, then do yourself a favor and see Hugo as quickly as you possibly can.
Movie Review Summary
2 Thumbs Up