By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist November 22, 2011 at 10:19AM
Yes, we already pretty much reviewed Martin Scorese's "Hugo" when it surprise-screened at the New York Film Festival last month in a not-quite-complete version. Even then in its unfinished state, The Playlist staff on hand were swept away by the fable conjured up on screen, and with this writer now having caught up and taken in the finished version, it's another reason to talk about a movie that we hope isn't lost in the holiday shuffle. Magical, charming and brimming with the kind palpable love for cinema that only a devoted cinephile like Martin Scorsese can bring, "Hugo" is an endearing story where imagination is the biggest special effect of all.
The film begins with a sequence that lets you know you're in the hands of a master. Aided by some digital handiwork along with beautiful set designs by Dante Ferretti, Scorsese opens his film with a swooping, seemingly endless one-take guided tour through the train station where most of the story is set. Think of it as the Copacabana entry scene from "Goodfellas," but for kids (and much longer). It's here that we meet our titular hero, played with a maturity beyond his years by Asa Butterfield. He's an orphan living in the walls of the Paris station, where he attends to the clocks, a skill taught to him by his drunken, and now estranged uncle (Ray Winstone) after his father (Jude Law) tragically passed away.
Within the hustle and bustle of the station are a variety of faces that we'll come to recognize over the the course of the film: the exacting inspector played with a hilarious, reined-in smarm by Sacha Baron Cohen; toy shop owner Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley); a lovely flower-stand girl played by Emily Mortimer and a flirtatious elderly couple who frequent the coffee shop, delightfully played by Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour. And oh yeah, it's about at this point, maybe ten minutes in, that the title card comes up, now that our introduction to the station is complete.
But there is still someone we haven't quite met yet, and that's Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), Melies' goddaughter who meets Hugo after her godfather confiscates his notebook one day as punishment for the gears and other gadgets he's stolen from him over the years. Hugo has been working on a mysterious automaton his father brought home one day from his job as a security guard at a museum, and by fixing it and making it work he hopes to keep the memory of his departed parent alive. Hugo urges Isabelle to help him get the notebook back and they form an uneasy alliance that soon turns into a fast friendship. The bookish Isabelle is thrilled by a chance to have a real adventure, punctuating her sentences with words she's read in novels like "reprobate." Meanwhile, the orphan Hugo is opened up to a world he didn't have access to thanks to Isabelle, including a wonderfully ramshackle bookstore run by the imposing Christopher Lee.
But getting the automaton moving is only the starting point of a journey that eventually finds the pair tumbling through cinematic history, and it soon becomes quite clear why Scorsese decided to take this material on. While the director does pause for a history lesson on the early days of cinema -- a marvelous sequence in which you sense the joy Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker had in putting together a clip reel of the films of yesteryear -- and references a slew of folks including Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffiths, the Lumiere Brothers and more, the very make up of "Hugo" is a celebration of the kind of fimmaking that first inspired Scorese himself. The film has a sense of tone and pacing that, at least for this writer, was similar to that of the films of avowed Scorcese influences Powell & Pressburger (which might be a dealbreaker for some, and we suspect may cause the film to drag a bit on subsequent viewings). And it's hard not to smile watching the very noticeable and obviously placed dust motes in the train station float by in the digitally shot film, almost as if Scorsese wants the audience to forget they have glasses on and feel like they are at home watching "Hugo" on a hand-cranked projector.
But lest you think Scorsese is trying to subvert modernity here, the film is presented in new-fangled 3D and it's frankly some of the best use of the format we've seen, well, ever. While many directors have talked about using three dimensions to add depth and texture to a film, Scorsese, to our mind, is the first to do it in a manner that is organic yet awe-inspiring, without resorting to pushing objects in your face to get the point across. A flashback to Melies' glass house movie factory yields the biggest rewards with an on-set underwater sequence that is simply wondrous. And while there are other highlights we could detail -- the bookstore and clock tower both getting some astounding work -- its Scorsese's use of 3D to present the story from the perspective of our child protagonists that truly impresses. The train station might as well be another planet with its warren of hidden passageways, puffs of steam engine smoke and endless streams of passengers going to and fro. Paris itself seems to run past the horizon, a city of endless possibility.
And therein lies the true message of "Hugo." At 69 years old, Scorsese is still in love with the movies and continues to be amazed by their power to invade our dreams and even change our lives. While the children learn that imagination and curiosity will stay with them as they grow up, it's the adults who realize it's those qualities that keep you alive. So while there is a cursory, surface message about finding your place in the world, there is also an underlying pulse that says it's okay to wonder, think big and get lost in your own journey, to uncover a mystery or create something of beauty, because it's in that undertaking that you find out who you really are.
Believe it or not, "Hugo" is easily the most personal film Scorsese has made in years. It almost seems as if Scorsese, with the knowledge that children will be watching this film, felt an extra responsbility not only to educate them, but to try and share that indescribable magnetic attraction the movies have had for him, and that is felt in nearly every frame here. That he is able to pull it off and do it in a way that is highly entertaining (whether you are a film buff or not) with a big, generous heart at the center of it (that doesn't need nostalgia from an established brand to drive it home), is even more remarkable. Simply put, "Hugo" is one film parents need to take kids to see this weekend. Yes, "The Muppets" is joyous, but so is "Hugo," and more importantly, between the two, it's the one that will send your child to bed with visions of a world they've never seen and have them waking up the next day wanting to see it again. [A-]