Review: 'Hugo' is an Impassioned Work of Art By a Master Filmmaker
by Jeremy Kirk
November 23, 2011
Hugo is arguably director Martin Scorsese's most personal work to date, a love letter to the pioneers of Golden Age filmmaking and a beautifully constructed - in 3D, no less - tale of the magic in the art that has long since believed lost. Scorsese brushes every stroke of this work with care and admiration, even when the film is more slapstick kiddie fare than the real passion he allows to bleed through in Hugo's last half. Always exquisite but never gaudy, the film, and its filmmaker, realizes the settings and story with child-like wonder to the point where even when the mystery has been unfolded, the magic is still allowed to awe us.
The setting is 1930s Paris where orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives alone in the walls of a train station. He winds the clocks. He steals the food he needs along with random, mechanical parts. When he's not sneaking in to watch films at a local theater, he's observing the real life movies, the brewing relationships and interesting characters, going on right there in the station. Hugo's only real desire in life is to bring to life the strange robot his deceased father left behind, a robot within which Hugo believes his father's last message resides. And so it is, after stealing from a local toy shop owner in the station, Hugo, along with an eccentric, young girl, discovers the truth behind the robot, his father's message, and the past life the toy shop owner wishes to keep buried.
It's in that first half of Hugo, when the mystery is revealing parts of itself and the story is being established, where the kiddie aspects of the film are allowed to run rampant. Even amidst the breathtaking visual imagery Scorsese offers us, the humor falls back on pratfalls one too many times. Much of that comes from Sacha Baron Cohen's station inspector who is hot on the trail of this mysterious boy who steals from local shop owners. Yes, the film looks stunning, something that never subsides in Hugo, but much of this comedy seems to run in the obvious circles far too often. Thankfully Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan are able to make the station inspector a multi-dimensional character, one whose story brings a far greater emotion than expected.
But it's in the last half of the film, when it goes from being about Hugo's quest to uncover his father's hidden message to being the secret of the toy shop owner, that Scorsese's real fondness for this story comes to light. Based on the book by Brian Selznick, it's no wonder after seeing Hugo why Scorsese jumped at the chance to make this film, to tell this story. An avid fan of the art of cinema, Scorsese is allowed to uncover the mysteries and magic of his own childhood, watching B&W and silent films of old and working out how the masters of that form of cinema were able to pull their tricks off. While the last half of Hugo might grow dry for some, most notably the crowd for whom the first half was devised, there is no question it was realized by a current master of the craft, one who has a passion for what he does and for all who did it before him.
It's a stroke of genius for Scorsese to present this story in the latest of technologies, as well. With the steamy, metallic corridors of the inner workings of the train station to the bustling and colorful streets of Paris, Hugo was a film made for 3D. It immerses you far greater than any film has to date, transports you to this wonderfully lush world even when that world is clearly crafted inside a computer. One moment early on follows Hugo as he travels through the station, one, unbroken shot that would grasp your attention regardless but becomes an incredible journey through this location with the 3D working at its best.
However, Hugo is more than just a film studies course and 3D trek through a Parisian train station. There's a level of emotion at work here that goes beyond Scorsese's love for cinema, one that embeds itself into this story of a young boy who's lost his place in life. His father deceased, his uncle abandoned him, Hugo is alone in his world with only the robot and the mystery of what it holds to keep him company. Through his journey and friendship with young Isabelle, played stunningly as always by Chloe Moretz, Hugo finds himself as he is finding the secret of another man's desire to become lost.
Enter Sir Ben Kingsley as the toy shop owner. Kingsley brings an air of mystery to this character, one that was already established based on his actions alone. But this actor in this role even helps establish the environment Hugo is living in even more. When the secrets begin to be revealed and we see flashbacks surrounding this man, Kingsley's ability to transform himself becomes even more apparent. He becomes the man he's supposed to be playing, brings the character and his works to a new life that surely has become one of Scorsese's proudest moments of his career. It's a passionate character crafted by a passionate filmmaker, and an actor as fine as Kingsley finds no effort in fleshing him out.
Hugo is a fabulous work of cinema for anyone who has a love for the art, a beautiful work of sentimentality from one of the leading craftsmen working today. Scorsese is a master filmmaker, but even he has idols of the art form that he looks up to. Hugo is a way for him to express this fervent admiration, to introduce us to both what made him desire to do what he does and the genius creators who inspired him. Full of exquisite imagery and emotional storytelling, Hugo is a love letter to the masters of cinema crafted by one who will surely go down in history as just that.
Jeremy's Rating: 9 out of 10