[28 November 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The cliche claims its place. It always has. No matter how many times it is said or how often the sentiment seems over-simplistic. Movies are indeed magic, from the very first images ever captured on volatile silver nitrate to the most sophisticated technological advances of the 21st century. From DW Griffith to Alfred Hitchcock, from Steven Spielberg to James Cameron, the ability for mere camera stock to take on a mystical, memorable existence all its own is, without a doubt, the fulfillment of the fantasy factory. It turned a medium meant for capturing reality into the stuff of studied dreams.
In fact, it’s never been a question of “if” as much as a determination of “how.” For every incredible visual or emotional experience had in a darkened theater, there are hundreds which miss the mark - sometimes by miles. The rare combination of project and prestidigitation is as elusive as the lost classics of long forgotten past masters. For decades now, fans and film scholars have championed Marin Scorsese, turning his every new project into a possible masterwork in the making. Even when he’s working in genres outside his comfort zone (if there really are any), he seems capable of gymnastic leaps in creativity. When he bounds, he bounds BIG!
Nowhere is this more true than in Hugo, a wonderful evocation of everything the cinema stands for and can conceivably be. Utilizing the award winning book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick as a blueprint for his homage to the origins of the format and finding a cast which infuses everything with amazing emotional power, this trip back in time is also a wonderfully inventive primer on how movies becames…movies. By taking the source and stretching it into a mandate on Georges Méliès, Scorsese gets to champion the classic cinema he loves so dearly while adding in barbs over preservation, credit, and historical perspective. Sure, the movie begins as a boy’s adventures in a stately Paris train station, but it ends up being much, much more.
Hugo Cabret (an absolutely astonishing Asa Butterfield) lives in the upper ceiling metal works of a famous French depot, his daily job being to wind and mend the clocks and avoid the watchful eye of the wicked, wounded in the war Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). Orphaned after the death of his inventor/historian father (Jude Law), he ends up in the mechanical structures of the public port thanks to his shiftless, alcoholic Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone).
One day, a shop owner (Ben Kingsley) catches our hero stealing wind-up toy parts. Demanding to know why, Hugo lets slip his secret - he has a large automaton in his living space. It was his father’s passion. With the help of a needed notebook and some perseverance, he hopes to repair it and decipher its purpose. When he discovers this, the merchant is livid. He grabs the pad and threatens to burn it. Even his goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) can’t figure out why her ‘Papa George’ is so angry. When a film scholar (Michael Stuhlbarg) uncovers the truth about the robot and its owner…and the connection to Hugo and his new friends, the news opens up a whole new world for the boy.
Like a labyrinth larded with shards of celluloid sensations past and filtered through the latest in Tinseltown commercial gimmickry, Hugo is an amazing masterwork. It’s a film so full of life and invention that it’s hard to fathom how others in the same business earn equal footing. Scorsese, already established as a living legend, shows the wannabes how it’s done, delivering frames so full of visual and narrative vibrancy that one’s brain can barely handle it. When it finally finds a grip, it groans for having suffered through so much meaningless drivel. Then, to make matters even more intriguing, the seasoned filmmaker finds a strong bond between his waifish lead and the audiences’ own sense of nostalgia and loss to legitimize the frequent fairytale avenues explored.
In Butterfield, Scorsese finds his Henry Thomas, a young boy of strong adult centers that really anchors his wistful and fancy free ideas. As Cohen provides comic relief (just not in the ways his fanbase expects) and Kingsley prepares to own the second act, our underage hero wanders through the stunning sets and situations, his open eyes consistently on the verge of terror…tears. Butterfield really plays the part as lonely and lost, his frequent attempts at connections countermanded by the storyline surrounding them. Even with Isabelle (a good Ms. Moretz) constantly trying to support him, Hugo has to find his own way. Through Butterfield, the journey to Georges Méliès is heartfelt and heartwarming.
In fact, it’s a risk for Scorsese to basically veer away from the whole abandoned kid storyline to focus so much on the invention of film as an artform, but that’s part of this movie’s endearing charm. Given the chance, handpicking a project that would allow him to indulge his love of the medium’s humble origins, he goes overboard, bringing Méliès myth to vivid life. As he did with Shutter Island, Scorsese experiments with different approaches and styles. We get stop motion, time lapse, Zelig-like manipulation of actual footage, and a fascinating lesson in the public’s initial reaction to moving pictures. In an even more impressive turn, Scorsese takes the inconsistent and mostly failing 2011 3D conceit and shows everyone how it should and could be done.
Though it’s being touted as a family film, the kind of entertainment the kids and their parents can enjoy together, Hugo is really much more. It’s a celebration of individuality and personal spirit, a showcase for struggle and the stunning results that can come from such pain. While fictionalizing the case of Méliès and his fall from grace (the famed artist actually did sell some of his films to a company who used the stock to make shoe heels), the spirit of truth pervades every frame. Hugo may be a tribute, but it’s a living accolade, a souvenir for and from a sick little boy who spent much of his youth wondering from stately NYC cineplex to the next. Hugo is the dictionary definition of the movie’s magical possibilities. It’s a must for those in love with the format.