Dir. Martin Scorsese. USA. 2011.

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A boy film historian

Martin Scorsese's Hugo is a serious, lush movie made for children and would-be children from a book (by Brian Selznick) that follows from the director's own long preoccupation with preserving the fragile artifacts of film history. It concerns a studious and mechanically adept French orphan in 1930, an ambitious recluse as he himself may have been as a boy, who discovers that right in the Paris Montparnasse railway station where he himself lives, maintaining its clocks, there is a lost hero of early cinema, Georges Méliès, who made delirious little fantasy and science fiction movies and then was forgotten and wound up running a train station toy shop. In solving the mystery little Hugo finds himself and finds a purpose in life.

Hugo is a celebration of fantasy and an ennobling of a shy child's dreams. It may provide the same kind of pleasure that Powell-Pressberger's Tales of Hoffmangave me as a youth, though the 3D and elaborate CGI of Hugo, yes, and even the location shooting in Paris, for me lack the magic of that earlier film's more artisanal effects, its ballet dancing, and Offenbach's music. More is, as so often, a little less. And in abandoning his sexy and violent earlier style of Taxi Driverand Goodfellas Scorsese has lost much of the raw energy his movies had in his heyday. Hugo is delightful (or what adults think is so for kids), but unlike Scorsese's gutsy best work, it's old-fashioned and blatantly artificial. There's nothing earth-shaking or exciting here. (Made one fifteenth the budget, The Artistevokes old film more adeptly and touchingly.) The children I saw walking out of the theater were quiet, entranced, perhaps, but not energized. At least Scorsese has produced something lovely and nice for the holiday season, not a waxworks monstrosity like Eastwood's J. Edgar (whatever the latter's Oscar possibilities for its ambitious star). Besides numerous valuable documentaries, Scorsese has had many missteps since his glory days. This isn't one of them.

Hugo is not without its passé conventions. Everybody in the 1930 Paris train station (a huge, elaborate indoor set) speaks English with a posh British accent, including the excellent (and suitably pallid) Asa Butterfield, as the boy, and the superb Ben Kingsley as the initially unrecognized and grumpy, later proud and mellow Méliès. And the film is also not without its children's-lit banalities. There is something clichéd from the start about a lonely boy who fixes clocks and then has to fix an automaton he dreams is himself. And in 3D: would Ingmar Bergman have jumped on the band wagon for this obvious and old-fashioned (but contemporarily money-making) effect? (Méliès' primitive ones are more imaginatively stimulating). You can call the story touching. That's diplomatic. Or you can admit that, however glossy and tasteful, it's treacly and sentimental, and at two and a half hours, plenty over-long.

Hugo fixes the station clocks at night, using parts he's stolen from "Papa Georges," the shopkeeper who later turns out to be the lost giant of silent film history. By day he gets to know a girl his age, Isabelle (the winsome Chloë Grace Moretz), who lives in Papa Georges' household. In a Rube Goldberg set of interlocking sub-characters adroitly folded in by editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Hugo also dodges a Jeunet-esque station cop (heavy-handedly played by Borat's Sacha Baron Cohen), who's humanized by his crush on flower-seller Lisette (Emily Mortimer), several steps off from the the pastry-shop of Madame Emilie (Frances de la Tour), whose dachshund wards off the amorous M. Frick (Richard Griffiths). Privately Hugo remembers how his dad (Jude Law), who died suddenly under mysterious circumstances, found the half-human sized automaton, and his aim becomes to find the heart-shaped key that will start it. He thinks if he can get it to work its hand will write a message that will tell him about his father. Instead, it draws a famous image from Méliès of a rocket crashed into the eye of the moon, which leads him to the filmmaker.

At this point the film stops to deliver a mini-documentary about the life and career of Méliès, how he began as a carnival magician at the turn of the century, started a studio and made over 500 films, and pioneered in special effects like dissolves, multiple exposures, and time lapse photography, all joyfully incorporated into short films marketed as sideshow attractions. But then moving pictures moved forward, his work became unfashionable, and most of the prints of Méliès' films were melted down by the French army to make boot heels. And so on. Though the film Hugo becomes and is intended as a loving evocation of and encomium to early film, it unfortunately treats it all, in this context, as a charming artifact, not something serious and intense that a little later would produce works like Metropolis and The Cabiinet of Dr. Caligari. Scorsese introduces allusions to Melies' A Trip to the Moon, Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery and the Lumières' La Sortie des usines, but this is not a good introduction to film history, and only a passing reference to the ongoing need for the kind of film preservation work in which Scorsese is so actively and influentially involved -- though it may be better at that than at telling an original coming of age story. Hugo's own personal journey gets somewhat derailed by the celebration of Méliès, and finally lacks real emotional resonance, despite the sentimentality surrounding his situation and its resolution.

And yet Hugo is already heavily lionized and mentioned as an Oscar Best Film. It's a safer choice than such contenders as The Descendants, The Artist, orMoneyball, its issue (film preservation) less troubling than the one of The Help (racial discrimination), which in turn are all safer than The Tree of Life or (god forbid) Melancholia. James Cameron hosted a showing of Hugo at the Directors Guild, where he heralded it as a "masterpiece," and said, "finally there is a Scorsese film I can take my kids to." He's right about the second part. Since it's not even December yet, it's too soon to make Oscar predictions; the best may be yet to hit theaters. But when has that ever stopped people?

Chris Knipp

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Chris Knipp

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