Review By: Gordon K. Smith
One of my indelible memories of moviegoing in the seventies was the PSA for the Will Rogers Institute you had to sit through at some theaters before getting down to STAR WARS or ANNIE HALL, wherein someone like Roy Scheider would pitch for that charity and, sure enough, half-interested ushers would walk down the aisles with collection cans (don’t recall ever seeing anyone actually pony up). I nearly expected to see that spectacle again during one scene of Martin Scorsese’s mostly wonderful HUGO, a moment clearly designed to show you the need to keep Film Preservation Alive (in fact, there’s another plug toward the end). Seorsese’s been the poster boy for Preservation for many years, and he’s finally found the right property to slip in that not-so-subtle pitch, in HUGO’s gear-changing second half.
Adapted from Brian Selznick’s “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by John Logan, HUGO takes place in the Paris Train Station of 1931, where 12-year-old Hugo (Asa Butterfield) keeps the clocks running and lives alone, after his father (Jude Law) dies in an accident and his rummy uncle (Ray Winstone) vanishes. Hugo’s clockmaker dad left him a mysterious legacy: a mechanical man that holds some message for Hugo, if he can only get it working again. Also mysterious: the old toymaker at the station (Ben Kingsley), who knows Hugo’s been stealing parts from him, and has a keen interest in Hugo’s notes. When Hugo meets the toymaker’s daughter Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), he solves both his own mystery and a bigger one, about the old man’s past.
Watching HUGO is like experiencing a beautifully detailed pop-up storybook. After years of dissing digital filmmaking, Seorsese embraces it here as only a master director can, with marvelous CGI visuals and some of the best 3-D ever. Instead of exploiting it as a gimmick to make audiences duck flaming projectiles, he uses it to create depth and composition to production designer Dante Ferrati’s colorful and meticulous sets, where something’s always happening, there’s always movement. The bonus plan for film buffs is Scorsese’s many visual references to other classic films and directors, from METROPOLIS to Michael Powell, Harold Lloyd and Hitchcock.
And that’s where the preservation angle sneaks in, around the midway point, when the toymaker is revealed to be none other than George Melies, the real-life French pioneer of the early days of cinema who created many trick effects that became standards. So from here, HUGO goes from charming family fare to a loving homage to the art of movies itself, with wondrous recreations of Melies’ magical shorts and their making (if you saw such Melies shorts as A TRIP TO THE MOON in your film studies classes, you’ll be startled to see even those in 3-D).
If you’re a student of the origins of cinema, you’ll be misty-eyed by the end; otherwise, if you’re a parent who thought you were bringing the kids to Disney-ish comedy, you’ll be mystified, and in for heavy head-scratching. No wonder HUGO has been a tough-sell marketing job: it’s a PG art-house movie that’s not really for kids – although they’d likely learn a lot more from it than any other live-action PG stuff of late.
HUGO is already doing well in the awards season, and is a big contender for Best Picture/Director Oscars; I’d surely consider it far more deserving than Scorsese’s overrated THE DEPARTED, which I found ugly and unrewarding (but yeah, Marty was overdue). That’s not to say HUGO is flawless. The second half could have used some tightening. Among others, a subplot revealing that the menacing-but-bumbling station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen doing a Peter Sellers turn) not only has a heart, but is a World War 1 vet, shifts the focus and slows things down. Not that Baron isn’t great here – every performance shines, and that includes the one-and-only Christopher Lee (age 89! – where’s his Honorary Oscar?) as a benevolent bookseller, and Marty himself as a photographer. His film is like a glittering Christmas ornament, enough to purge a year’s worth of mediocre moviegoing memories.