By Don Simpson | November 23, 2011
Writers: John Logan, Brian Selznick (book)
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, Ray Winstone
Hugo, director Martin Scorsese’s virginal foray into 3D cinema, begins with one fantastic flaunting of the third dimension, utilizing a long tracking shot that squeezes through the narrow tunnels and crowded platforms of a 1930s Parisian train station. (Brian Selznick’s source novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret takes place in 1931, Scorsese’s film is not dated.) Unfortunately, this is a cinematic sequence that could only possibly take place in the mostly artificial realm of CGI, and to my discerning eye it appears unbelievably fake. In theory, it is a worthwhile attempt, Scorsese proves that he truly understands how scenes need to be framed in order to take full advantage of the 3D medium. If only he could have confined the entirety of Hugo to crowded confines, and kept the scenes somewhat grounded in the reality of actual locations rather than a CGI stage. For the most part, I was pretty annoyed and frustrated by the 3D lensing; not only does the technology render the images darker and softer than 2D images, but it makes everything appear so damn artificial (during certain scenes Hugo actually looks eerily similar to The Polar Express, which is not a compliment in my book). That said; I am an ardent naysayer of modern 3D technology (Avatar, UP and Coraline are the three exceptions I can think of).
Now, on with the story… Is it just me, or does almost every children’s fantasy/adventure film feature orphan protagonists? The titular Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is no exception. The prepubescent Hugo is left to clandestinely tend to a complicated system of clocks at the aforementioned Parisian train station after his father (Jude Law) dies and his uncle (Ray Winstone) disappears. An ever-vigilant station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) has made it his life’s mission to roundup all of the orphans he can find and ship them to the orphanage; so Oliver, I mean Hugo, must remain one step ahead of him at all times.
In a feeble attempt to reconnect with his father, Hugo attempts to rebuild an automaton with spare toy and clock parts. Unfortunately, a nasty old curmudgeon (Ben Kingsley) who tends a toy shop in the station snatches Hugo’s notebook which contains his father’s notes on how to fix the automaton. Hugo desperately enlists the assistance of Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), a precocious young bookworm with bright eyes and a glowing smile — and she is the goddaughter of the old man — to win his notebook back.
The conniving young duo are quickly distracted from their original mission as Hugo takes Isabelle to see her first film — Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last — and Isabelle brings Hugo to a library for his first time. Their two adventuresome interests fatefully collide when they come across a book entitled The Invention of Dreams: The Story of the First Movies Ever Made, and this book provides them with clues regarding the true identity of Georges Méliès. (This is around where Hugo suddenly makes a sharp left turn from a kids’ adventure story to a pseudo-bio-pic about Méliès.) Isabelle and Hugo join forces with the book’s author, René Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), to bring Méliès out from the shadows.
Unless you are a connoisseur of early silent films, you are probably wondering who the heck this Méliès character is… Well, in short, Méliès was the first to recognize the connection between the cinema and dreams. This is the man who is often credited with originating the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres of cinema. His most famous film A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la Lune), from 1902, includes an oft-referenced scene in which a spaceship hits the eye of the man in the moon. In case you are curious, my other personal favorites are: Le Manoir du diable, 1896; The Man with the Rubber Head (L’Homme à la tête en caoutchouc), 1901; The Brahmin and the Butterfly (La Chrysalide et le papillon d’or), 1901; Kingdom of the Fairies (Le Royaume des fées), 1903; The Impossible Voyage (Le voyage à travers l’impossible), 1904; 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Deux cent mille lieues sous les mers), 1906; and The Eclipse (L’éclipse du soleil en pleine lune), 1907.
Méliès came from a family of shoemakers, but he sold his share of the shoe factory to begin a career as a magician. The invention of the movies in France by the Lumière brothers prompted Méliès to build his own film camera out of parts from an automaton. He directed 531 films between 1896 and 1914, ranging in length from one to 40 minutes. What Méliès films lacked in plot, they made up for in the cinematic magic of groundbreaking special effects (not unlike a lot of Hollywood blockbusters today, and not unlike Hugo).
Contrary to what Hugo will have us believe, Méliès was never presumed dead during World War I; he stopped making films in 1913 after being forced into bankruptcy by much larger French and American studios (Méliès’ production company was bought out of receivership by Pathé Frères). The celluloid of his films did not become the heels of women’s shoes; but the French Army did seize most of Méliès’ film stock to be melted down into boot heels during World War I. There are some truths about Méliès in Hugo, he did become a toy salesman at a Parisian train station and did collect automata.
I certainly appreciate Scorsese’s hero worship of Méliès and Hugo may actually have a better chance of turning audiences on to silent films than The Artist. But is this the film everyone is expecting Hugo to be? Hugo is being marketed as a children’s adventure story, not a lesson on film history and a diatribe about the importance of film preservation. Even Scorsese the magician leads us to believe that Hugo is the former, until he unveils the latter, thus pulling a Méliès-esque trick by making so many seemingly important threads of the first half of the narrative disappear before our very eyes. Poof!
Asa Butterfield (Son of Rambow) and Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass, Let Me In) are two of my favorite young actors working today, and their presence definitely saves Hugo from utter failure. I often tried to just forget about the haphazard narrative in order to just enjoy their performances. Ben Kingsley and Sacha Baron Cohen are also quite entertaining in their own unique ways. Admittedly, though, I was very confused by Scorsese’s decision to have all of the French characters speak in British accents. I guess the language and dialect of Hugo is just another directorial magic trick…