Dir. Martin Scorsese. U.S.A. 2011.
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Before we judge an old cynic too quickly, perhaps we should stop and think whether there is a human story behind their bitter exterior, perhaps a lifetime of lost dreams. Such is the case in for Georges Méliès, the cranky toy store owner (Ben Kingsley), in Martin Scorsese's Hugo, who turns out to have a secret that he has been hiding for many years. Set in Paris in 1931 and based on the children's novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, Hugo is the story of an orphan boy who lives in the walls of the train station, the Gare Montparnasse, and spends his time winding clocks, a skill taught to him by his alcoholic uncle (Ray Winstone) after his father (Jude Law) died in a fire. 

Shot in 3-D by cinematographer Robert Richardson, the depiction of the train station is perfectly realized, especially its feverish activity and imposing Roman statues and figures in the piazza. The boy, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), survives by stealing food from the station's kiosks while trying to avoid the threatening Station Inspector, Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen). It seems that Gustav, having been raised in an orphanage himself, thinks that all boys without parents belong there. Hugo of course has a different opinion and spends his days observing people at the station.  

These include Lisette (Emily Mortimer), a flower seller and scholarly librarian Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee) among others. Gustav and Lisette develop a relationship, but a leg injury suffered during the war makes him a reluctant suitor, though more of his human qualities begin to surface. Hugo likes to fix things that are broken and steals parts to repair a discarded automaton with a sad face that his father retrieved from a museum's trash bin. Hugo believes that once the automaton is repaired, the machine will be able to write a coded message to him from his father. He steals one too many mechanical parts from the toy store owner, however, who keeps the boy's notebook that provides crucial instructions on how to fix the automaton.  

Begging for the cantankerous Méliès to return his treasured notebook, he develops a friendship with Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), the goddaughter of Méliès and his wife (Helen McCrory). Isabelle loves adventure and finds a suitable partner in Hugo who likes movies and they both sneak into the cinema where a Harold Lloyd film is playing until they are thrown out. Hugo tells Isabelle that “broken machines make me sad,” and ponders the idea that if every part in a machine has a purpose, then he must also have a purpose in life, a wise observation. The film “switches gears” in its second half and becomes a plea for film preservation and a tribute to the beginning of cinema and to those pioneer directors who created an industry that no one thought would last.  

Film historians will marvel at the showing of silent classics such as “A Trip to the Moon” and the work of such luminaries as the Lumière brothers, Edwin S. Porter, D. W. Griffith, and others, though the films have been recreated in 3-D rather than restored. Through the efforts of Hugo, Isabelle and Monsieur Labisse, however, the story of Georges' secret life is revealed and his bitterness is transformed into gratitude with radiant results. Hugo is by and large a family film and, since the majority of Scorsese's films have been R-rated, this is probably his first film that has been accessible to a wider audience.  

Although the film is designed for children, much of the material is too adult for them and the presence of Gustav's huge Doberman Pinscher coming directly at the audience in 3-D is enough to scare even adults half to death. Perhaps Scorsese thinks that it's a good thing for children to have nightmares. While Hugo is undoubtedly a technical marvel, it feels to me like a perfect wind-up toy that has all its parts functioning perfectly but lacks the button that would bring it to life. While the performance of Asa Butterfield is certainly adequate, he is not particularly captivating and there is little dramatic tension in the film once the mystery is solved, except for a few dreams and an obligatory chase scene.  

Unlike such classics as The Black Stallion or National Velvet, there is little here that reminds us of childhood. Hugo and Isabelle talk and act like little adults not children. A film such as Hugo might have been better in a simple and straightforward manner, not bloated with extraneous conversations, an over-abundance of characters, and dazzling 3-D effects that ultimately do not add much to the viewer's overall satisfaction. I think, however, Hugo may become a classic but for all the wrong reasons. It will be studied mainly for its stunning technical achievements, its excellent use of the 3-D medium, and its colorful lessons in film history. When children are looking for magic, however, they may turn elsewhere. 


Howard Schumann

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