An orphan living in a Paris train station makes an amazing discovery about one of the station’s shopkeepers in Hugo, a live-action adaption of the children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret directed by Martin Scorsese.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in a Paris train station, at some point between the world wars. He keeps the clocks running, a job that is technically one his Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) is supposed to be doing. But Claude, the man who took Hugo in after his father died, has vanished. Hugo doesn’t seem to particularly mind that or mind the work — his father (Jude Law) was a clock repair man and a generally handy guy with machines. The work keeps Hugo out of the orphanage — that is if he can hide his guardian-less state from the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). And it gives him access to tools and the many small gears he needs for the project he truly cares about: an automaton. His father found the small metal robot at the museum where he worked and the two had been trying to repair it when Hugo’s father died. Hugo brought the robot with him to the train station and now works on it in his off time.
In addition to the station clocks, another source of gears is the station’s toy shop. Georges (Ben Kingsley), a grumpy old man, works at the shop, occasionally accompanied by his ward Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who is about Hugo’s age. One day, Georges catches Hugo eying a wind-up mouse and accuses him of trying to steal it. He takes a notebook from Hugo — one, we learn, full of drawings by Hugo’s father, who was attempting to figure out how to fix the metal man — and says he will only give it back after Hugo works for him for a while. Hugo agrees, surprising Georges with his fix-it abilities, learning a few magic tricks and striking up a friendship with Isabelle.
For about the first 45 minutes, maybe even an hour, I kind of wondered why I was watching this movie. The orphan, the toy shop owner, the cartoonish police man — it was all pretty but it all felt very generically fairy tale-ish. The movie dropped hints about people but not quite enough to reel me in. The Station Inspector (Cohen is made to look impossibly tall and thin — like a toy solider himself) has an extreme-seeming hatred for orphans, a shy fondness for the florist (Emily Mortimer) and a leg in a brace from a war injury. Georges’ grumpiness has a mournful edge. Isabelle, for some reason, has the heart-shaped key that may help the automaton finally work. I felt like the movie was constantly shouting “This Is All MAGICAL” without ever giving me a sense of magic.
But then the movies start.
No, not the movie. The movies, as in the earliest films. Ones like A Trip to the Moon, the early 20th-century film that now always makes me think of that Smashing Pumpkin song (if you are old enough to remember music videos, you’ll remember how much “Tonight, Tonight” owes to A Trip to the Moon). That movie, SPOILER ALERT, was made by a man named Georges Méliès, who made many other fantasy-filled films using some of the earliest movie special effects.
And this is where things do start to feel magical. Hugo reaches back to the turn of that century, to the magical times before World War I when new technology didn’t yet have a malignant edge to it. The movie tells a lovely, romantic story of the birth of cinema, from the novelty that was a moving picture of a train pulling into a station (which scared the bejesus out of an audience as the train came closer to the front of the screen) to fully-fledged story telling via film.
And now I know why I’m watching this movie. Martin Scorsese has been a long-time proponent of film preservation. I have a half-memory of commercials he used to do on AMC about the early films melted down or scraped for their silver. The more I realized I wasn’t just watching a really well made kids’ movie but rather a director’s passion project, the more I enjoyed Hugo. The movie worked on me sort of backward. Hugo is the scenic route to telling the story about Georges and early film but it all fits together (like clockwork) when you see it from the end. Hugo’s story does make the other stories go — even supporting characters, like the Station Inspector. Likewise, I was ultimately rather charmed by all of the performances — ultimately, as in at the end. Everything that felt too much or too flimsy pulled together into a coherent piece that presented a unified vision (not unlike, say, a picture drawn by a mechanical robot).
Hugo is really a delight, one that takes a while to cast its spell but does indeed take you someplace magical once it does. B+
Rated PG for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking. Directed by Martin Scorsese with a screenplay by John Logan (from a book by Brian Selznick, who, talk about early film, is a distant relation to David O. Selznick), Hugo is two hours and seven minutes long and is distributed by Paramount Pictures.