Old 11-22-2011, 07:35 PM
Martin Scorsese's Hugo

Here's the link to the published version of my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:



Hugo (2011)

Director Martin Scorsese has been known to try a hand at several different genres. He’s most well-known for his films that take a darker look at humanity, though he has given us a pair of comedies and some documentaries as well. One thing Scorsese is not known for is making kids’ films, which is why “Hugo” became one of the most talked about films of the year. What would a man with Scorsese’s background in violent gangster films bring to the genre of childrens’ cinema?

The film involves a young boy, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who lives in the walls of a Paris train station. His father (Jude Law) has passed away, leaving him with his uncle (Ray Winstone), who leaves him to live on his own. Hugo has been trying to collect spare parts for an automaton left behind by his father, a clockmaker who was trying to complete it, that he believes will contain some kind of message. However, the man who runs the toy shop he has been stealing from, Georges (Ben Kingsley), catches him in the act, but instead of turning him in to the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), he takes Hugo into his employ to make up for the items he’s stolen.

One day, he runs into Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who is under the care of Georges and his wife. Isabelle just happens to have the last piece of the puzzle to make the automaton work, a key in the shape of a heart. Upon activation, the automaton delivers its message, a message that will send Hugo and Isabelle on a fascinating adventure through early film history which culminates in their discovery of just how important a man Georges was, and still is, considered.

At first, Scorsese’s excursion into childrens’ films had me worried as the first half of the film doesn’t really go anywhere, but is used instead as a kind of set up for the story. We are introduced to Hugo and his vast world in the walls of the train station where he keeps the clocks all wound up, a task his uncle taught him to do. It begins to set up the mystery beginning with the automaton that his father left him, something that Hugo has been very vigilant about putting back together using the skills his father taught him as a clockmaker.

However, when the second half begins, we are taken on a lovely journey that will inevitably teach those not familiar with the early days of film a thing or two. The importance of film to the plot is set up early on as we learn that Hugo used to go to the cinema a lot with his father, seeing such films as “Robin Hood.” At one point, Hugo and Isabelle even treat themselves to a show of Harold Lloyd’s “Safety Last,” one of the great silent comedies.

However, this gets taken to the next level when we realize that Isabelle’s “Papa Georges” is really the great Georges Méliès, director of over 500 films in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including his most famous work “A Trip to the Moon.” Diving into Méliès’s background is a fascinating springboard for the film’s amazing final act. As this story tells us, he apparently thought his films were no longer wanted in an era post World War I, but he soon finds out that he couldn’t be more wrong as film lovers like Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg) soon show him.

We also learn that most of Méliès’s films were melted down so the chemicals could be used for the heels of shoes. However, thanks to an exhaustive search, many of his films were discovered in vaults, and while the prints needed some touching up, film lovers were more than happy to do the work with the reward being that they were able to see these films after so many years. In a sense, this film becomes an advocate for film preservation, something Scorsese himself is well-known for doing.

It will be interesting to see how this plays to a wider audience. Critics, including myself, are already enjoying it immensely partly because we know a lot about this material, but how will the average filmgoer react to a story that tries to teach them a little about the history of cinema? Scorsese has made a film for film lovers and for those who are appreciative of film history. It delves into not only Méliès, but also the Lumiere brothers, who were pioneers in developing a camera to shoot motion pictures. Your average filmgoer is not going to be familiar with people like this, but will hopefully still get something out of the story if they are a lover of cinema.

The film treats us to some iconic film imagery that shows just how widespread and recognizable it can be. While Hugo and Isabelle are watching “Safety Last,” the iconic scene of Lloyd hanging from a large clock face from several stories up is shown, and while we are shown parts of “A Trip to the Moon,” we see the infamous shot of a rocket hitting the moon in its face. These are such famous images that people who have never seen the films, or don’t even have a vague idea where they’re from, will recognize them.

It’s hard to imagine how this film is going to be enjoyed by the kids that the marketing seems to be directed toward, and indeed, the kids at this screening seemed to be getting rather fidgety, especially during the telling of Méliès’s backstory. The marketing is a little misleading, but while it’s not really a kids’ film, they will probably still enjoy the story of Hugo and Isabelle, even though their story ends up getting overshadowed by that of Méliès.

It should be noted that the film was in 3-D, and while it’s not as immersive as it should have been and still dims the colors, it didn’t bother me as much this time as I was already immersed in the fascinating story without its help. It should look even better on a second viewing in 2-D. Scorsese is a master storyteller and one of the best directors working today. He doesn’t need a gimmick like 3-D to prove this. His films speak more than enough for themselves and “Hugo” is no exception. 3.5/4 stars.

Last edited by Hal2001; 11-22-2011 at 10:41 PM..
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