Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Hugo" A Triumph, And A Good Case For Film Preservation (My Epic Review)

"If you ever wonder where your dreams come from, look around: this is where they're made."
--George Melies in "Hugo" 

 Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" is a visual treat, a magical children's story that morphs into an arresting biography of a real-life motion picture pioneer.  It is also an effective plea for the preservation of old movies.

This is unlike anything Scorsese has ever directed before.  Having freed himself from the constraints of his usual material (gangsters and underworld crime), and his often self-parodic style (hothouse lighting, exclamatory camera movement, classic-rock soundtrack) it is as if Scorsese had just seen a movie for the first time, or re-discovered a new magic in making films. He identifies with this character's imagination, and his love of film.

"Hugo" is a finely focused story which utilizes the film medium to the utmost.  It is in 3D (about which I'll say more later), and yet it is so rich in detail and wonderful imagery that it can be enjoyed "flat" with little to diminish it.  Of the few 3D films I have seen since they began popping up a few years ago, "Hugo" makes the best use of the technology.

Scorsese is in his element with this tale of a young orphan named Hugo Cabret, a mechanical whiz and lover of movies, who lives in the walls of a Paris train station in the 1930's.  After Hugo's loving father meets an untimely end, and his clockmaker uncle abandons him, Hugo continues to wind all of the clocks in the station, and looks for the heart-shaped key that will activate a special mechanical man, or automaton, that may contain a message from Hugo's father. 

Surviving on his own by stealing food and small items, and parts for his automaton, and avoiding the clutches of a darkly comical Station Attendant who loves to return homeless boys to the orphanage, Hugo eventually falls into the bad graces of George, the station's toy-maker, who takes Hugo's notebook filled with drawings as punishment for Hugo's thievery.  Hugo befriends the toy-maker's goddaughter Isabelle, and soon they are in the midst of a breathtaking adventure in which they unlock the mystery of Papa George's past, using the history and magic of filmmaking as the key.

Along the way there is comedy, action, some terrific stuff with dogs, suspense, beautifully realized performances, and some of the most awesome shots of the year.  "Hugo", while a bit frenetic in its first half hour, gets better and better as it goes along.  Some viewers, who expect slam-bang slapstick throughout, may not appreciate that the film finally settles down into a richer, more historic realm, but film fans will hunker down for a gentler, more awesome good time.

I have never seen Scorsese enjoy himself as much (the move from New York to Paris has done him good), and I have never had such fun at a Scorsese film.  The word "innocence" comes to mind:  I like this new-found innocence in Scorsese, his playfulness.  He has rarely directed children, and his success is in that area is another happy surprise. 

This new tone also showcases and enhances Scorsese's formidable skills as a filmmaker, and a visionary one, more than much of his later work.  It is as though a skilled musician suddenly proved himself as a master conductor.  There is nothing too menacing here; we are meant to immerse ourselves in a wondrous world.  It's classic material, in the manner of a lighthearted, non-musical "Oliver", or even this generation's "Mary Poppins".

And yet Scorsese has something more lasting that he would like for us to take away from this film.  That is, an appreciation for the cultural heritage that movies have allowed viewers to share through the decades; and a knowledge of the origins of this art form called the motion picture, knowlege that we have lost through the generations.  What comes through most is Scorsese's enthusiastic invitation for us to care about history, and more importantly film history, and to see the benefits of preserving it.

The story of George Melies is intricately woven through this tale of a boy whose love of tinkering was the creative spirit behind the earliest movies.   Scorsese and his superior crew of designers technicians, musicians and performers provide us with a wealth of information, and a kaleidoscope of fantasy and incident and subplot, which enter through our hearts and stimulate our thinking. Special mention needs to be made of Dante Ferretti's sets, which are a marvel of imagination and aesthetic pleasure. All the while, "Hugo" sets our own imaginations spinning and our own creative juices flowing. 

(Read here for more about George Melies' life)

"Hugo" does a great service by resurrecting the long-forgotten figure of  Melies, who was responsible for so much amazing film technique and technology, presenting his life story rather faithfully, and making him relevant to today's filmmakers and moviegoers.  It is by necessity a sentimental story, and an uplifting one, and a rare experience at the cinema today. 

It's interesting that today, in a time when advances in motion picture technology threaten to destroy the emotional and intellectual pleasures of movies in favor of pure sensation, a film like "Hugo" (and even "The Artist") wants to allow viewers to retreat into the origins of what made cinema the popular art form that it has become, before those origins are gone for good, totally forgotten.  By doing so, we realize that the more "primitive" effects that were invented by pioneers like Melies (and that are still possible to achieve with simple home-movie equipment) are extremely effective.  All we needed was the encouragement to really see them. 

If you love movies and the history of filmmaking, you have to see "Hugo". Most of us are familiar with Melies' "A Trip To The Moon", in which a rocket ship lands in the eye of the man in the moon.  (Oscar buffs know that this short film was used in the opening sequence of the 1956 Best Picture, "Around the World in 80 Days".)  But Scorsese uses many different clips from Melies' surviving catalog, and re-creates the making of these films.  We also learn that after exhaustive searches and meticulous restoration, at least 200 of Melies' films, thought to be lost, have been saved, and are available for viewing. What better advertisement for modern film preservation?

Hugo and Isabelle are our on-screen surrogates as we see Melies' remarkable story come to life: of Melies' days as a magician, his introduction to the movies (with the Lumiere Brother's train arrival that made viewers duck in panic), his romance and marriage to his leading lady, his construction of an all-glass studio to let in natural lighting, and his downfall after World War I took Melies' movies out of popular favor.

It is heartening to see the character of Melies be paid tribute in a movie today.  It is also a treat to have a happy ending, without irony, as all of the characters find love and belonging. 

Scorsese takes old scenes and recreates them for his story as well.  I defy viewers not to duck, as early audiences did, when a train speeds toward us, threatening to collide with Hugo on the tracks.  I laughed as Hugo hung from the hands of a large clock in the manner of Harold Lloyd in "Safety Last", also showcased in this film. And watch how seamlessly the contemporary actors are incorporated in the older footage to give the clips authenticity. Throughout, Scorsese masters an unfamiliar technology, and as a result, makes us pay attention, and leaves us with the same feelings of discovery that Scorsese, and Melies, must have felt.

Asa Butterfield, as Hugo, has a quality of a young Elijah Wood.  Butterfield perfectly captures Hugo's curiosity and sly mischief as well as his sentiment and fierce determination.  Few bits of acting this year can top Butterfield's appeal to the Station Master's own sad history as an orphan.  Sacha Baron Cohen, with a thick mustache and trick leg, is terribly appealing as the "villain" of the piece who is redeemed by the attentions of a sympathetic flower girl (the beautiful Emily Mortimer). Cohen is a skillful character actor, maintaining dramatic tension while keeping the humor close to the surface. Chloe Grace Moretz convinces as a young Parisienne who captures Hugo's attentions, and his heart, and is a fun partner in his adventures.

Ben Kinglsey is a revelation here.  While the role is not terribly demanding, his Melies is totally captivating, one of the finest supporting roles of the year.  Kinglsey, without layers of makeup or undue accent, completely disappears into this role, and brings Melies to thundering, imaginative life.  With Kingsley in the role, "Hugo" really triumphs.

If I have any quibbles, it has to do with some plot holes, and some thoughts about the use of 3D thematically in this movie.  As far as the screenplay, I think it is beautifully done, although I wish the matter of Hugo's missing notebook had not been forgotten, and I wonder about the film-historian's assumption that Melies was killed in the war. Otherwise the story is told in wonderful dialog and nicely-plotted set pieces.

As for the 3D, I think "Hugo" uses the technology really well most of the time, especially in the latter half.  I found it distracting during some of the earlier, faster-paced sequences.  And there is so much beautiful detail and depth in the sets, and intricate costume design, that I wished early on that I could have had more time to linger on these things without the added "filter"of 3D.  Also, at some early points,  Scorsese tries to create depth of field by blurring the foregrounds and backgrounds.  While I admire his attention to this detail, unfortunately the foregrounds are sometimes indistinguishable from the backgrounds; the eye doesn't have much time to focus from shot to shot.

But in the less rapid sequences, the effect soars.  Especially in the slow zoom-ins and closeups, in particular of Kingsley and Cohen, the effect is to bring the characters into an unusual intimacy with the viewer, right in one's lap. And during the clock-chase sequence, an overhead shot from the top of the clock tower looking down is stunning. 

File:Le Voyage dans la lune.jpgI was struck by an irony: late in the film, Melies' own work, like "A Trip To The Moon", was presented in a 3D format.  I thought this was a mistake, and, after just seeing a trailer for "Titanic" being re-released in 3D, it had the unintentional feel of an advertisement for 3D.  I would rather have let the old film remain in its original format, as a way to honor that history, and preserve what once was, so we can study it anew.

I think "Hugo" will not herald a new renaissance in 3D filmmaking, but will prove to be the exception to the 3D rule. I fear most filmmakers lack the skill and consummate knowledge of technique and history that allowed Scorsese to create something unique and beautiful.

In the balance, however, I must recommend "Hugo" to viewers who still value the singular pleasures of moviegoing on a large screen.  I hope Martin Scorsese continues to explore material that plays into his love of the movies.  This is one of the finest films of the year, and one that will still hold up on 2-dimensional blu-ray for those of us traditional film fanatics who have not yet taken the 3D home-theater bait. 


  1. This film was a remarkable and sweet surprise. Maybe this and The Artist will rekindle interests in early film history. It made me want to see more of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin again. Kudos to you, Tom, for capturing the appeal of Hugo so eloquently.

  2. Excellent review, Tom, and one that perfectly encapsulates the joy and wonder of the movie.

    Personally I found the whole project distancing and don't seem to love it in the way most viewers do (I longer for a proper documentary on Melies rather than a greatest hits gloss) however it's hard not to argue with Scorsese's passion or artistry.