If there was ever a director out there who could bring the new cutting edge technologies of film to a tale, while keeping the classic touch in a magical tribute to cinema, its director Martin Scorsese. ”The movies are our special place,” says Hugo, the main character, and through Scorsese’s vision it’s easy to whole-heartedly believe it.
From the minute Hugo begins, it sweeps the viewer into a world vastly different from the gritty gangster pictures the director is famous for making. Instead, Scorsese paints his palette like a pro, whizzing the audience into a ‘30s train station in the center of Paris, giving the viewer a plethora of visuals from the characters and their colorful idiosyncrasies, to the intricate inner workings of a large clock, stationed at the center of everything.
We’re introduced to Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who revels in mysteries and observes the daily lives of the workers in the station and the commuters buzzing in and out of the train station. The so-called “kids film” may be from the point of view of a boy, but this particular boy has a dark past, and Scorsese never pulls away from that fact. From the beginning we find that the boy was orphaned after his father was killed in a fire, and all he left behind was a broken automaton—a mysterious machine that sets the story ablaze for Hugo’s adventure. His own purpose in the train station is a mystery to the workers, giving him a reputation as a boy who seeks out trouble.
The story sets into motion when Hugo gets accused of being a thief by the toy maker (Ben Kingsley), who steals the book of instruction manual his father left behind for the broken automation. Without the manual Hugo is lost but not defeated, and becomes an employee for the man in an attempt to prove he’s an honorable person. Through the mysterious toy maker he meets Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), who’s hungry for any kind of adventure, and sees that Hugo may have a few to offer.
Scorsese works wonderfully with children and finds as many magical moments in Hugo’s world as he does the bleak and saddened hopelessness Hugo feels with every bump in the road to uncover the purpose of the automaton and what his father wants him to know about the machine. As the viewer you can’t help to feel the desperation in the young Hugo as he tries to hold on to something that might bring him closer to his father for just a few more hours, days, even months. It’s a testament to how Scorsese cleverly captures the story of Hugo, and juxtaposes the wondrous world with the orphan’s despair and often frustration over his bad fortune.
The missing element to most streamline films today is the key motif that pulls everything together, and it’s no surprise that Scorsese not only has a running motif but weaves the history of film pioneers such as George Meliese and the Lumière Brothers, who worked in similar themes, to get to the heart of the story. The motif that drives this story is the broken down machine that needs fixing.
Eventually the kids fix the machine and the meaning it held for Hugo starts to unravel midway into the film. Usually this would be too late into a story for such a key change, but Scorsese knew how important it was to set the tone and world of the characters for a climatic build that would drive the film on an electric current all the way through to the end. The automaton leaves Hugo a drawing of from the classic George Meliese film A Trip To the Moon, which also happens to be the first film his father saw in the cinema. With more hope that each solved mystery would bring him closer to his father, the two children set on a journey to uncover the great mysteries cinematic film has to offer. What they find is that the angry toy man is George Meliese himself, a man who’s art form outdated itself, and left him to forget the world he left behind once he decided to leave the industry.
Hugo and Isabelle’s journey becomes more pertinent and they both realize that their purpose is to fix the broken man through rediscovering all the beauty and wonder film has to offer. As the audience, Scorsese makes it hard for you to forget why film is the single most important medium art has to offer, and if you’ve forgotten, he does a damn good job of reminding you, here.
The DVD bonus features act as a fantastic companion, which included a featurette behind Scorsese’s inspiration to make a film so different for the rest of his body of work. When he read the children’s story that the film is based on, Scorsese had “an immediate connection to the story, the boy, the boy’s loneliness, cinema, and the machine of creativity.” If you ever wanted to get into the mind of the bubbly, fast-talking, wheel-turning mind of Scorsese then this the film to take you there.