I see some movie trailers and think, “Yeah, I’ll catch that on DVD someday.” Once in a while I make that assessment and when I finally see the movie I kick myself for not taking the chance to see it on the big screen. I don’t think I was even 5 minutes into Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) before I began lamenting that I had missed it in theaters.
In the middle of 1930’s Paris, orphan boy Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives within the walls of a train station. He maintains and repairs the stations many clocks, a skill he learned from his father (Jude Law) and uncle (Ray Winstone). The only thing Hugo has left from his father is an automaton that doesn’t work. Hugo works to repair the automaton but he has to find its heart-shaped key to activate it. While eluding the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), he meets a cranky old man named Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), who works at a toy booth and his god-daughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Hugo finds that they have a surprising connection to his father and the automaton. As the mystery unfolds, the old man begins to remember his past and his significance to the world of film-making.
The first half of the film centers around Hugo’s escapades as the mystery unfolds. The second half is almost a tribute to Georges Méliès who was a real historical figure and an infamous French magician. He actually did use his magician skills to make some of the first special effects used in the very early days of film. You may have seen his most famous short film, A Trip to the Moon (1902), about travelers in a space capsule which is shot from a cannon to the moon, and their capsule pokes the Man in the Moon in the eye. The backstory depicted in Hugo actually did happen to Méliès. Méliès’s life is depicted in a loving way to show the magic and wonder that films can have, both in making them and viewing them. Therefore, Hugo seems like a love letter from the masterful director, Martin Scorsese, to the art of film.
Hugo seems like a family film on the surface: child protagonists with skills beyond their years, a seemingly slapstick villain, and secrets that only the kids are able to uncover, etc. But each character in this film is deep and complex, far more so than the usual exaggerated kid characters in family films. Hugo is talented for a reason; he was an apprentice under two clockwork masters. Isabelle is knowledgeable because she is so enamored with books. This even comes out in her vocabulary-enriched dialogue. Even the bumbling station inspector is not just a goofy slapstick antagonist; there is a reason for everything he does. Every single character is delightfully deep and complex.
The visuals in Hugo were just astounding; everything was beautifully designed. There was a lot of CGI and other techniques that made up the train station and 1930’s Paris. The opening shot starts with a swooping tour of Paris, through the train station, and ends on Hugo peeking out of a small opening in the clock face high above the station floor. Every shot has so much beautiful detail that it’s almost hard to drink it all in, and yet it’s so masterfully incorporated that it doesn’t seem like it’s a gratuitous display of special effects. Even the automaton looks like a beautiful mechanism that will work if Hugo can just find the key.
Generally, I see 3-D movies as being very gimmicky. Even when watching their 2-D counterparts, you can often tell what scenes were tailor made to have things pop out of the screen at you. I did not see Hugo in 3-D, and I’m regretting it. 3-D shouldn’t be gimmicky, but should enhance the sensory experience of watching a movie. I think that in the hands of a master director like Scorsese, 3-D technology would be beautifully implemented. I want to get a 3-D Blu-Ray copy of this movie and find a 3-D TV I could watch it on. I really felt like I was missing out on Hugo’s full potential.
The pacing was a bit slow for younger children. It will probably bore some kids, but I think this is a fantastic film to introduce children to high quality cinema and wean them off garbage like Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (2011). Hugo was so exquisitely done that I could see this being used to teach film students. I highly recommend seeing this movie; it will be especially magical if you are a cinephile like me. I’d also urge you to consider owning a copy. Possibly even a 3-D Blu-Ray copy, just in case.