Hugo is that one near-great movie that comes around every year. It’s a film that for all intents and purposes could have—or maybe should have—been a masterpiece. Martin Scorsese’s Parisian period picture is enchanting, mesmerizing, gorgeous to look at from start to finish, makes brilliant use of 3-D, and pleas rather admirably for preservation and rediscovery of silent cinema. And somehow, it remains slightly uneven, esoteric, and self-indulgent. The result is a damn good film that can’t quite shape into a great one.
Based on Brian Selznick’s best-selling book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the story begins in 1930, and Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is the orphan fixing clocks behind the scenes at Paris’s opulent Grand Central Station. Unbeknownst to everyone, Hugo scurries around the station’s many secret rooms, tunnels, corridors, and catacombs like a mischievous mouse on the hunt for cheese. But Hugo keeps the station ticking; he’s the fulcrum, the mechanism that churns and moves the station’s many elaborate operations.
The film’s overarching visual motif—to which Scorsese’s 3-D camera gives tremendous dimension and life—is to make Hugo’s world appear as if part of one big machine. Paris itself—from fantastical starry-night cityscapes—becomes an engine, always spinning and turning with the many cars, flickering lights, and busy people that course through it. Hugo himself is a wiz with mechanical toys and gadgets, and he confidently moves around the station’s gear-shifty playground. When he’s not stealing croissants or bottles of milk—or evading orphan snatchers who round up lost kids like the Pound—he’s seeking spare parts to rebuild a broken old robot (or “automaton”) left to him by his late father (Jude Law), a museum curator.
Through the faces of the station’s copious clocks, the lonely Oliver Twist stares down at the mezzanine’s many travelers and shopkeepers. There’s the kindly flower girl (Emily Mortimer), whose romance with Sacha Baron Cohen’s vindictive station security guard (Cohen’s clownish Clouseau and his inquisitive, pointy-eared pooch provide the film with both its antagonists and comic relief) is thwarted only by his insecurity. The portly Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffith) can’t get a word in edgewise with the genial Madame Emilie (Frances De La Tour) because of her nipping little dog. Labisse (Christopher Lee) owns a very resourceful bookstore, and one can tell that the crotchety old toymaker, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), is hiding a secret that has something to do with Hugo’s automaton, and, possibly, the very beginning of French cinema. His goddaughter Isabel (Chloe Moretz) is an adventurous bookworm, and she and Hugo team up to solve the mystery.
A few of the scenarios play out like independent short vignettes. Hugo becomes the innocuous voyeur—in an allusion to Hitchcock and movie patronage itself—as he gazes down at the romantic exploits of strangers. Papa Georges’ secret past quickly moves front and center as Scorsese sweetly, albeit indulgently, takes time to trace the entire heritage of narrative filmmaking—from the Lumiere Brothers to Griffith to Keaton. The director has long been a proponent of lost film recovery and redistribution. The second half of Hugo provides a vehicle for him not only to peddle his belief that old movies are wonderful (which they are), but to reconfigure some of the earliest films ever made into glorious 3-D—officially linking the past and future of movies in one lovely stroke. The gesture is undeniably respectable and considerably passionate. Yet it comes at the cost of his story.The tale of Hugo, his tragic past and his mysterious automaton is muscled out by Scorsese’s lush but overly determined cinematic harangue. The two stories just never quite link up. As the true cinema lover that I am, Scorsese’s assertion that movies are a thrilling discovery is close to my heart. When I first started exploring classic films it was like I opened a treasure chest of rare, eclectic gems. The director’s first foray into 3-D family filmmaking comes close to recreating that magic, but it is maybe a bit too reverent to become a classic in its own right. To the director’s credit, he brings that train station to vivid, pulsing life in ways unseen in movies this year. Stanley Kubrick said, “If it can be dreamt or imagined, it can be filmed.” Hugo’s mise-en-scene looks as if it was transplanted intact from Scorsese’s own subconscious. It was Jean Luc Godard who said, “Cinema is the train not the station.” Yet, the station of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo longs to capture the medium in all its wonder. The movie perhaps overreaches, but it’s a cinematic dream factory the famous cinephile can certainly be proud of.