Review: Hugo

Right on the heels of Kodak’s announcement that they are stopping the production of 35mm film stock, Martin Scorsese delivers Hugo, undoubtedly the greatest argument for preservation of film in the industry’s history. But Hugo is not simply a celebration of the film medium’s wonderful past – Hugo is a love letter written to film past, present, and future.
This is Scorsese’s first film to be shot in 3D, and – this is the very first and perhaps only time you will hear me say this – this film is meant to be seen in 3D, and I highly recommend you do so. By shooting this film in 3D, Scorsese embraces the new technology despite being one of the few holdouts remaining (Spielberg has also caved, with Tintin releasing in 3D next month). It’s a wonderful bit of irony that Scorsese evangelizes this new technology with a film that celebrates the humble beginnings of film.
And what a celebration it is! Hugo‘s story is based on Brian Selznick’s children’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and is about a young boy (played by the surprisingly expressive Asa Butterfield) whose name should be rather obvious that lives in the clockwock of the Paris Metro Station in the 1930s. After a tragic accident claims his father’s life, Hugo is left with his drunk uncle to tend to the clocks of the station. Hugo’s only memento of his father is a mechanical construct called an automaton that Hugo tries desperately to repair in the hopes of finding a message from his father. Along the way, he catches the ire of a toy salesman (played wonderfully by Ben Kingsley) who observes his thievery (to which he must resort to survive) as well as a strict station inspecter (the always humorous Sacha Baron Cohen), and the eye of the toy salesman’s goddaughter Isabelle (amply played by Chloe Grace Moretz). Hugo fixes the machine with Isabelle’s help, and discovers that it does in fact contain a message from his father – an illustration of the film that the two went to see, Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), signed “George Melies”, the director of the film. It is soon discovered that George Melies is in fact the toy salesman, and Hugo and Isabelle set out to “fix” Melies, who is somber and unhappy after the failure of his film studio.
It’s quite apparent that Hugo is deeply rooted in the history of cinema, and Scorsese does a wonderful job capturing the excitement and energy the early filmmakers and filmgoers had – a particularly noteworthy example comes in the form of a flashback, where Melies sees the famous Lumiere Brothers film, The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, and the audience watching the film ducks in terror as the train passes the camera. It’s one of film’s oldest legends, and to see it is very grin inducing for film fans. Many subsequent scenes take place in Melies’ studio, depicting the making of his 500-some odd films (of which only 80 survive). Scorsese excels in the framing of these scenes, and the excitement extends far beyond the screen.
Even non-film fans will have a wonderful time with Hugo, however, as the characters are strong enough to compel even without the incredibly engaging historical subtext. Both of the kids in the film pull off excellent performances – particularly Asa Butterfield, who has proven his ability in previous films (The Boy With The Striped Pajamas). Of particular note are Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths, who turn in delightfully amusing performances as two unnamed patrons of the Paris Metro who have a tenuous romance brewing that is complicated by a particularly vicious dog. The resolution to this mostly wordless plot line is at the same time endearing and wildly funny. Baron Cohen also does a fantastic job as a cold, strict station inspector who slowly loosens up over the course of the film, is involved in a small romantic plot line which itself gives us several laughs throughout the film. There is not a single performance in this film that does not impress.
Despite the incredible depth of character and performance, Hugo‘s greatest accomplishment is in its visuals. Scorsese’s camera sweeps through 1930s Paris with finesse, gliding swiftly along station platforms and through city streets. The whole film is awash with warring tones of bright, warm oranges and deep, radiant blues. The colors are so very indicative of the emotional intent of any given scene that by the end of the film Scorsese can manipulate your emotions with just a lighting filter. One particularly gorgeous example is during the scene when Hugo and Isabelle fix the automaton. As the machine whirs to life and begins to draw, the camera focuses on the bright orange innards of the machine as the music (also fantastically done by Howard Shore) swells and the excitement becomes palpable – but when it suddenly stops with nothing substantial on the page, Hugo steps back and collapses into a chair, and the blue tones of the room overpower the camera.
Hugo is a wonderful experience that will attract all filmgoers, be they casual admirers, academics, critics or fans, and it is very difficult to walk away unsatisfied. This is one of the best films of the year.
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