“He said it was like seeing his own dreams in the middle of the day.” When 12-year-old Hugo (Asa Butterfield) remembers how his father (Jude Law) described going to the movies, Hugo shows the sorts of dreams he means: Chaplin and Keaton and Hal Roach, singular instances of brilliance now turned into grand collective memories. It helps too that Hugo introduces his new friend Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) to these dreams in the most perfect way: as they sneak into a cinema in Paris in 1931, she worries they will “get into trouble.” He smiles and continues picking the lock: “That’s what makes it an adventure!”
Inside, the children catch a matinee show of Safety Last: the camera watches them watching, eyes wide and mouths agape, as Harold Lloyd dangles from a tower clock high above a city street. When the camera cuts to watch Hugo watching Isabelle, the magic of the moment is secured: this is a movie about falling in love — with movies. As such, it repeats the well known life story of director Martin Scorsese, once an asthmatic kid who saw his own dreams reflected on screens and who is now a tireless advocate of film preservation. It also celebrates the many, constantly changing technologies that make movies then and now possible, from hand-cranked cameras and tinted cels to 3D projections and digital chips. As much as Harold Lloyd thrills Hugo and Isabelle, this new adventure takes viewers deep inside the walls behind clock faces, so that time becomes both metaphor and experience, a means to illustrate inspiration and also make you feel inspired.
All this as the most remarkable moments in Hugo are drawn from the fantastic shorts made by Georges Méliès. In this movie, he’s played by Ben Kingsley, serving as a tragic figure (attempting to repress his own past) as well as Hugo’s nemesis-then-mentor and Isabelle’s grumpy grandfather. The films, like 1902’s A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) and The Impossible Voyage (Le voyage à travers l’impossible) (1904), last but a few minutes. But they open up the doors to a century’s worth of dreaming. When they are reframed and also recreated in Hugo, they remind you that movies are not so much determined by the machines used to make them, but turn most magical in the watching.
Again and again, Hugo watches — movies and the world around him. Orphaned when his father is killed in a fire at the museum where he works, the boy is carried off to the Gare Montparnasse by his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone). Here Hugo sets to work on maintain the clocks: each day he checks and adjusts their times, hiding inside the walls and peering out onto the bustle on the station floor. Travelers carry their suitcases or pause to sip coffee, an artist in a beret (Richard Griffiths) romances the café owner (Frances de la Tour), whose dachshund does its best to stave off the interloper. Men get their shoes shined and a live band plays pop tunes.
As he watches, Hugo is also potentially watched. Each day the station inspector, Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), and his Doberman pinscher, Maximilian, make rounds in search of abandoned children. Gustav makes no secret of his dastardly intentions: he means to lock them up in the dreadful cage he keeps in his dark office, before he sends them off to the orphanage, the same one where he spent his own wretched childhood, and now deems a molder of stoic determination: “You don’t need a family,” he asserts, prepared to inflict his own misery on everyone he can.
Of course, the movie argues otherwise, and means to teach Gustav a lesson as well. This lesson will be embodied by Hugo and also by the fetching flower girl, Lisette (Emily Mortimer), who appreciates that the inspector’s squeaking leg brace is the result of a war wound: she lost her brother in the same war, World War I, the very globally affecting cataclysm that, in this film’s fiction, brought an end to Méliès’ dream factory as well: as he tells it, the studio where he and his wife and muse Jeanne (Helen McCrory) used to work (and “have a lot of fun”) became unsustainable as soldiers returned from the front having seen “too much of reality” and thus unwilling to spend their precious time on movies — however transporting or transformative these might have been.
Such transformation is made more literal in another of the film’s metaphors. As Hugo hangs onto memories of his dad (no mother in sight, even in flashbacks), he keeps the automaton his father once loved, a half-sized mechanical man posed to sit at a desk. When it’s fixed, the automaton will be able to write. Hugo hopes it will write something just for him, perhaps a secret message from his father. As the camera takes Hugo’s view, watching the automaton from across the small room they share inside the station walls, its eyes are dark and glassy, perhaps reflecting the boy’s desires, but also showing no emotion, eyes that cannot watch, and cannot share in the magic of the movies.
Hugo uses the automaton as a device: it was repaired by Hugo’s dad, but only after it was built by Méliès, and so the boy becomes the conduit for passing along this gear-and-spring-driven incarnation of inspiration. The automaton represents the filmmaker’s brilliance, realized more fully and for a broader audience in his movies. As Hugo turns at last to a full-on consecration of Méliès’ work — he stands on a stage and introduces a series of his films, recovered, says an enthusiastic film historian and preservationist (another sort of hero here, played by Michael Stuhlbarg), out of “vaults, private collections, basements, and catacombs.”
The camera here again cuts from the faces of rapt audience members to the enchantments on screen. As much as Hugo is being touted as Scorsese’s foray into 3D, the early images, flat, awkward, and strangely beautiful, are its most memorable.