Thank you, Martin Scorsese, for delivering a film we can finally savor this year. Adapted from Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Hugo had barely begun its journey before I sensed it would be very special.
Hugo, played by Asa Butterfield -- who wowed audiences with this 2008 performance in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas -- is a tough and inventive orphan living in the clock tower of a Parisian train station in 1931. Why he wanders through a maze of floors and stairways to make sure the clocks are always on time is at first a mystery. Where’s his family? And why does he have to steal food?
The answers lie with Scorsese, who takes great delight in slowly unfolding the mystery and magic of John Logan’s beautiful screenplay. It’s soon revealed that Hugo’s father passed away, and his uncle (Ray Winstone), who was left to care for Hugo, eventually took off. So Hugo has made the train station his home. He scurries around through vendor carts with the speed of a mouse, and is just as quick at grabbing fruit or a bread bite before he’s caught.
Although doing a great job staying yards in front of the zany station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), Hugo finally gets snared by an elder shop owner (Ben Kingsley) when he tries to grab a magic item. The owner plays Hugo while being watched by his goddaughter Isabelle, (Chloe Grace Moretz), who befriends Hugo, telling him to stand up to her godfather who has taken a very precious booklet from Hugo.
The two youths become fast friends, each teaching the other amazing things about their lifestyles. Isabelle feels she’s on a great adventure with Hugo, and he becomes mesmerized by her love of books. Hugo also learns that Isabelle’s godfather and guardian is the famous filmmaker Georges Méliès, who gave up a life behind the camera making impressive early films -- and refuses to even talk about them.
Inside the meager space where Hugo has made his home sets a mechanical man known as an automaton. In a flashback scene Hugo’s dad (Jude Law) lovingly explains the magic of the automaton, who could write a message to them if only they had the heart-shaped key to wind him up.
The production design of Hugo by Dante Ferretti (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, The Aviator) looks like a brilliant glistening ornament on a bare Christmas tree. It’s exquisite. Every corner Hugo turns, every person in the station – such as the flower girl (Emily Mortimer) or book shop owner (Christopher Lee) – reveals a moment of awe and pure magic. Cinematographer Robert Richardson (Inglourious Basterds, The Aviator) uses his talented eye behind the camera to catch and enlighten every aspect of the enduring story.
Scorsese went one step further with this film by making it in 3D, but not the maddening 3D that has encompassed many of the more recent 3D films. Scorsese became attracted to 3D when Alfred Hitchcock used it in Dial M for Murder. Describing his perspective of the effect Scorsese created in this film, Kingsley said, “I suppose it’s a little bit like an artist going from fine portrait painting to landscape painting. It’s a shift in the way he puts his brush, but it’s the same brush and it’s the same canvas.”
In addition to a sensational cast, there are some real treasures here for classic movie fans, especially those aware of George Méliès’ work. As a director, he made more than 500 films starting in the late 1800s. Hugo spotlights a few such as A Thousand and One Nights and A Trip to the Moon, a 1902 film where a rocket flew into the eye of the man in the moon.
Nominated for seven Academy Awards, but winning only one (The Departed), Scorsese’s Hugo ends up as a wonderful tribute to creative storytelling, early cinema and magic. I hope the Academy recognizes the extraordinary gift he has given film lovers everywhere.
(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated “PG” for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking.)
Review also posted at www.reviewexpress.com.