REVIEW: Scorsese's Hugo Melds Modern Filmmaking with a Glorious Sense of the Past
God help filmmakers who become legendary: Even if they manage to avoid becoming prisoners of their own high standards, there's no escaping those of their audience. And so Martin Scorsese has taken perhaps one of the biggest risks of his career -- bigger, even, than making a radiant, low-key movie about the origins of the Dalai Lama -- in adapting Brian Selznick's subtle and wondrous children's novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret. You just know there's going to be some asshole at the dinner party asking, "Yes, but how does it compare with Taxi Driver?"
Scorsese's Hugo is oversized, ambitious and expensive-looking -- and still it manages to be lovely, which is the hardest task of all to pull off, even for an alleged movie genius like Scorsese. And like another movie opening this week, Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist, Hugo isn't just about the love of movies; it's about the necessity, and the pleasure, of having some connection with the past. I know far too many teachers who lament that their students, when faced with a cultural reference that predates the 1980s, moan, "How can I be expected to learn about all these old things?" With Hugo Scorsese forges a connection between past and present, enlisting newish 3-D technology in the service of honoring all the things movies can mean to us, the specifics of the delivery system notwithstanding. Hugo states, in its adamant, straightforward poetry, that old things do matter.
At the center of Hugo, which is set in the 1930s, is the orphan boy Hugo Cabret (played by Asa Butterfield, who resembles a pint-sized Maggie Gyllenhaal crossed with the Artful Dodger). Hugo lives secretly within the walls of a large (and magnificently fictional) Paris train station. His father, a clockmaker (played in flashback by a mischievously appealing Jude Law), has died, leaving him to the cruelty of his sozzled uncle (Ray Winstone), who immediately puts him to work: Hugo uses his mechanical skills to keep the station's clocks wound and running smoothly, even though almost no one knows he's there.
But Hugo has a secret stashed away in his attic lair, a mechanical man that his father found, broken and forgotten, in museum storage. Hugo hopes to restore the automaton to working order; to that end, he periodically steals parts from the train station's toy stall, run by a crotchety old gent played by Ben Kingsley. And like Hugo, "Papa George" -- as he's called by his ward, Isabel (a winsome Chloë Grace Moretz), who becomes Hugo's close friend and partner in various capers and scrapes -- also has a secret. Hugo's mechanical man, a silvery mannequin with blank yet all-seeing eyes, is the link that connects Hugo and Papa George. But it also connects us to the pleasures of the mirror world we know as the movies, a shared-secret universe where Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are as alive today as they ever were, and where a trip to the moon has nothing to do with NASA or Neil Armstrong.
Improbably and magnificently, Hugo is a big, mainstream Hollywood picture that dares to suggest that Georges Méliès' famous and famously fanciful 1904 short A Trip to the Moon -- a movie that's familiar to film scholars and enthusiasts but not necessarily to contemporary kids -- might have some resonance for audiences today. Méliès' daring and inventive little movies -- he made more than 500 short films between the late 1890s and 1913 -- are a significant reference point in Hugo, and they give Scorsese and his longtime production designer Dante Ferretti the opportunity and the freedom to re-create a series of gorgeous miniature toy-theater universes. There's a delicately tinted undersea tableau where mermaids cavort with lobster men, and an action sequence in which sultans with swords fend off a crew of skeleton warriors who disappear -- poof! -- in a puff of smoke.
This is Scorsese's way of connecting "primitive" movie magic with the finest of modern filmmaking effects, and the result is a work of great charm and wonder. Hugo is both a mystery and an adventure story, a movie in which the tiniest gears can play a deeply significant role -- maybe that's why it's more intimate than it is overwhelming. And Scorsese never loses sight of the human scale. As glorious as Hugo is to look at -- it was shot by Scorsese's frequent collaborator Robert Richardson and cut by the crackerjack Thelma Schoonmaker, a goddess among film editors -- the actors never get lost, even in the context of Ferretti's elaborate, dollhouse-like set. Christopher Lee shows up as a solemn but kindly bookseller, and the wonderful character actors Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour appear as tentative sweethearts kept apart by a yapping dachshund. Emily Mortimer makes a mournfully adorable flower-seller. The marvelous English actress Helen McCrory plays Papa George's loyal wife, Mama Jeanne, though she is also, as we see, a princess, a mermaid, a dancing girl, preserved on celluloid just as Leonardo kept one mysterious smile alive on canvas. And in a joyous feat of physical comedy, Sacha Baron Cohen appears as a surly station master who likes nothing better than capturing wayward boys -- not unlike Hugo -- and sending them to the orphanage. Cohen has marionette limbs -- they appear to be controlled by springs and strings -- and he moves with the combined grace of a silent-film comedian and a modern-day goofball.
Hugo also has the distinction of being one of the few 3-D films that made me forget I was watching 3-D -- it's more naturalistic than assaultive. (In fact, some of the movie's most effective 3-D effects are also the simplest, involving the ultra-expressive snout and ears of the station master's doberman, emerging from the frame to register distinctively canine surprise and dismay.)
But there's ambition here, too -- we are after all, talking about a Martin Scorsese movie. Selznick's book is ambitious in its own right, a marvel of figurative and literal crosshatching: The illustrations are marvelously textured pencil drawings in black, white and gray. Scorsese's Hugo is much more colorful, but it still holds the spirit of Selznick's book delicately, as if it were a special treasure housed in the shell of an egg. And if Scorsese can't resist adding some special pleading for a subject near and dear to his heart -- the importance of film preservation as a way of keeping our movie past alive -- you can hardly blame him. While Hugo is delightfully modern, Scorsese has also very carefully placed it in the context of our shared cultural history. Even in the digital age, our dreams still move at 24 frames per second.
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