Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helen McCrory, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Michael Stuhlbarg, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law
Part of the beauty of filmmaking, is the ability to transport viewers to another reality. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, filmmaker Georges Méliès seized the opportunity to put stop tricks and painted film cells to use, combining his skills as a magician and filmmaker to, quite literally, bring dreams to life. Ultimately, we’re still doing the very same thing today, but with the wildly advanced technology and more thorough understanding of storytelling, director Martin Scorsese has created one of the most successful attempts at bringing an audience into the movie with Hugo.
It’s the 1930s in Paris, France. After losing his father (Jude Law) in a terrible fire, young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is forced to live with his only relative, his uncle, Claude (Ray Winstone). A far from responsible drunk, Claude pulls Hugo out of school and shows him the ropes at work, teaching Hugo to keep the clocks running at a Paris train station. And it’s a good thing, too, because when Claude leaves Hugo to his lonesome, it’s up to Hugo to keep things timely.
When he isn’t tending to his train station duties, Hugo is hard at work at the one thing his father left behind, an automaton. Hugo regularly snatches up food and milk from the train station vendors and also frequents grumpy old Georges Méliès’ (Ben Kingsley) toy stand, a place prime for automaton part collecting. When Méliès catches Hugo in the act, he demands the boy empty his pockets. Amidst the usual mess of rogue toy parts is a notebook with automaton drawings and instructions that oddly rub Méliès the wrong way. When Méliès takes Hugo’s precious notebook, Hugo turns to Méliès’ goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), for help and the two discover they have a lot to offer one another, Isabelle helping Hugo get his automaton up and running and Hugo giving Isabelle a taste of adventure.
Hugo is mesmerizing right from the start. The film opens by showing off two of its key assets, the 3D and Hugo himself. Through a detailed overview of the entire train station at peak travel hours, Martin Scorsese offers a glimpse at almost all of the film’s main players while artfully weaving us through train tracks, travelers and shops, quite literally bringing the location to life courtesy of the incredible amount of depth from the extra dimension. But, even beyond the pretty picture, and far more importantly, this portion of the film gives the audience a look at a day in the life of young Hugo. Quite appropriately, the movie begins by showing us our protagonist in the midst of his status quo, until someone steps in and shakes things up quite a bit, and that someone is a downright chilling Ben Kingsley.
The film may be called Hugo, but this adventure belongs just as much to Georges Méliès. Yes, that’s Georges Méliès as in the iconic French filmmaker. While Hugo does exhibit a strong arc right in line with the chain of events of the plot, it’s Méliès that begins the movie as one man and finishes in an almost entirely new form, a transition Kingsley handles quite beautifully. He shares a number of striking scenes with Butterfield, but the most memorable of the bunch is certainly when Méliès tells Hugo he’s burned his precious notebook. Kingsley hits a degree of wickedness that will absolutely break your heart, just as it breaks Hugo’s.
But, of course, that kind of emotion can’t come without a solid performance from Hugo himself and Butterfield delivers big time. Before delving into his acting ability, Butterfield simply has a look that’s prime for the big screen. There’s something about his porcelain skin, striking blue eyes and general innocence that helps form an instant connection. But then, Butterfield really brings it home through a notably natural and heartfelt performance. Through Hugo, Butterfield has the ability to bring you to tears, but turn it right around and bring a goofy, somewhat childish smile to your face, an emotional range that serves the film quite well.
Moretz makes for the perfect sidekick as she continues to distance herself from her iconic Hit Girl performance and show she can handle anything and everything, in this case, portraying a character that’s oozing with joy, albeit also a rousing degree of self-awareness. For much of the film, Isabelle bops around by Hugo’s side, itching for a big adventure. However, underneath her positivity and smiles, there’s a young adult who’s worried about finding her purpose in life. Rather than let the concern consume the character and take quite a bit of the fun out of Isabelle, Moretz simply keeps the concept within reach, using it for added depth.
In the supporting character realm, Baron Cohen stands out as the station inspector, a fantastic source of comedic relief, but, then again, a fairly threatening opposition for Hugo. Christopher Lee makes an impression as Monsieur Labisse, the owner of a train station bookstore as do the daschund -owning Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths who strike up a sweet romance. Emily Mortimer gets lost in the mix a bit as Lisette, the flower shop owner who catches the station inspector’s eye, but she does serve her purpose. However, Helen McCrory makes for a wonderful Mama Jeanne, Méliès’ wife. The character exhibits an intense dedication to her husband, but also the slightest degree of understanding towards Isabelle and Hugo, making her one of the more unpredictable players of the bunch and, therefore, one to keep a close eye on.
On the technical front, Scorsese excels, and that’s putting it lightly. While I’m still not fully aboard the 3D train, Hugo exhibits the most successful use of the technology yet. As snow pops off the screen as it falls, you can practically feel the chill in the air and, as the camera swerves through the train station, you actually get the sensation that you’re amidst the crowd. But, even beyond the extra dimension, Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson simply know how to create endlessly intriguing imagery. Thanks to top-notch work from the design department, Scorsese and Richardson have a wonderful amount of visual flair to work with through set design and costumes and, therefore, few frames have any empty space.
Hugo is a film that literally has the power to transport an audience to a new world and that world packs an almost overwhelming degree of emotion. Thanks to solid performances, on point camerawork and an ideal score, Hugo comes to life in an exceptionally complete fashion. The moment the film begins, you step right inside and the train station practically closes in around you and from then on, you’re fully immersed in Hugo’s adventure, a venture packed with heart and a ton of fun.