The magnificent opening sequence of Hugo transports us into its enchanting world. In 3-D, we are suddenly under softly falling snowflakes as the camera soars over the cityscape of Paris, the Eiffel Tower in the distance, then in a single shot keeps traveling down to the platform of a train station before soaring again up behind the station’s giant clock, to the room where a boy named Hugo lives. This stunning filmmaking calls to mind the famous uncut tracking shot in Martin Scorsese’s more typical Goodfellas, but that’s the last time you’ll be reminded of the present day. Hugo is so thoroughly entrancing, for the time you’re watching it you might be living inside a magical Paris of 1931.
Scorsese’s is also the first truly artistic use of 3-D I’ve seen. I never once remembered I was wearing those silly glasses, was never distracted by a 3-D image suddenly popping up. Dazzling though it is, the technique blends seamlessly with a story that speaks to adults as much as (maybe more than) children.
Orphaned, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) has inherited a robot-like automaton from his father; it’s a machine that needs a heart-shaped key to come to life. (Think about how sentimentally other filmmakers might have treated that heart-shaped key; here it is a simple, lovely touch.)
Hugo’s search for the key leads him to a girl named Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) and her godfather, Pappa Georges (Ben Kingsley). Now working at a toyshop in the station, he is secretly none other than the great early filmmaker Georges Melies, so disenchanted by failure that he has left the world of movies behind.
As they discover Pappa Georges’ identity and his art, Hugo and Isabelle embody Scorsese's main theme: the great adventure of following your imagination and your dreams. This is no abstraction, but a journey that involves a wealth of beautifully-cast characters. Jude Law has a touching early scene as Hugo’s father, and Ray Winstone is positively Dickensian as his drunken uncle, the station’s clock winder.
Hugo is constantly hiding from the station’s martinet inspector, played by Sacha Baron Cohen with the brio of an old-movie character actor. Melies’ muse and wife, known to Isabelle as Mama Jeanne, is sensitively played by Helen McCrory. And the iconic Christopher Lee is a gentle bookseller who sends the children to a place caled the Film Academy Library, where they discover a book about Melies. Hugo was, of course, based on a book - Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret – and literature is just as important and magical here as the movies.
Well, maybe not quite as magical. We see glimpses of classic films, including Melies’ A Trip to the Moon, with its famous shot of a rocket hitting the Man in the Moon in the eye, and recreations of Melies at work as a stage magician and as filmmaker. The love of movies is, of course, a key to Scorsese’s own heart, and like the sequence of famous film kisses in Cinema Paradiso, or the behind-the-scenes secrets of Day For Night, Hugo is an emotional, irresistible reminder of why we adore the human yet wizardly world of the movies.
Yet it is not an exercise in nostalgia. With its emphasis on children, imagination and creativity, Hugo is decidedly about the future; it’s thrilling to watch a master filmmaker like Scorsese embrace new 3-D technology and use it in such a forward-looking way.
Scorsese’s accomplices in filmmaking are artists, too, including his constant editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. Robert Richardson’s photography and Dante Ferretti’s production designs are amazing, as we gracefully move into a world of muted storybook colors, full of shadows and snowflakes and smoke from the train’s engines. John Logan (screenwriter of The Aviator and the new Coriolanus) has created a screenplay that touches the emotions without pressing too hard. When Melies tells Hugo “Happy endings only happen in the movies,” it’s a delightful cue that we all pick up.
And when Hugo takes Chloe to see a film, which Pappa Georges had forbidden, she says to him after, “Thank you for the movie today – it was a gift.” It’s no exaggeration to say: So is Hugo, Scorsese’s early Christmas gift to all of us.
(Scorsese has made the talk-show rounds talking about Hugo; if you missed it, watch his amusing interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.")