Hugo Cabret traverses a busy Paris train station, winding clocks and passing through complex mechanical devices. He sees the inner workings of everyday machines and looks at life in a similar way, with everyone and everything on Earth functioning as a part of the whole, with an inherent purpose. In Martin Scorsese’s newest film, he functions in a way similar to young Hugo, exploring the inner magic of film and showing us the power of the medium to inspire and awe its viewers. It’s a beautiful movie, and despite some minor flaws, it still stands out as one of the most ambitious, must see films of the fall.
Hugo, based on the children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, follows a young orphan (Asa Butterfield) living in a 1930s Paris train station. Rummaging through the walls he winds clocks, navigates through the machinery and, secretly, looks for spare parts he needs for his own little adventure. His father (Jude Law) left him a human looking automaton, which can write a message when correctly operated. The only problem: he’s missing the key necessary for its function. Soon he meets Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), a precocious, adventurous little girl who just might be able to help him unravel the mystery and uncover what could be a message from his father.
Hugo is Martin Scorsese’s first 3D film, and it’s easily one of the best uses of the technology since James Cameron’s Avatar. The world is bright and colorful, not made dark and muddy like in many other 3D movies, and the audience is swept away into the world through some beautifully composed shots. The opening, in which the camera pans through a busy train station, is a true testament to the power of 3D when used correctly. There are a few gimmicky tricks here and there, like with Hugo sticking his hand out towards the camera to grab Isabelle’s hand, but where the 3D really shines is in these landscape shots, which are truly immersive and gorgeous to look at, like a three dimensional French painting. One problem with this, though, is that 3D tends to make objects protrude out from their backgrounds, so there are several shots in Hugo where it’s very clear a green screen or computer generated effects are being used. In 2D, this is much less obvious. Still, despite these few hiccups, the 3D is beautifully and thoughtfully composed, and one of the few times it’s truly worth the extra money.
Asa Butterfield as Hugo and Chloe Moretz as Isabella both do a magnificent job, carrying the film even more so than the adult actors. Moretz’s character in particular, a young bibliophile hungry for an adventure of her own, is a complete delight, bringing an energy to the film that makes the journey feel fun and enjoyable all the way through. Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) plays a train inspector who, along with his dog, scouts out the station for thieves and orphans. He mainly serves as the comedic relief of the film, like a slapstick actor from the 1940s. While he does a fine job with the role, his character is given a bit more screen time than is really necessary. He has a whole romantic subplot which could have been almost entirely cut without the film losing too much. The comedic scenes of Cohen don’t quite fit with the overall tone, so when they come up they’re somewhat jarring, and during most of them I really just wanted to get back to Hugo and Isabelle’s story.
The first half of Hugo is all about unlocking the secret behind the automaton and the message Hugo’s father left behind. Once this secret is revealed, the last act becomes something entirely different. As the film hinges so much on its mystery, I won’t reveal what this entails, but the last act is a true delight, paying tribute to the power of cinema and the inner workings of the magic. Hugo Cabret immerses himself in film to escape from his dramatic childhood, and we get a sense of how unique and mysterious the pioneers of early cinema were. Before modern computers, directors were forced to rely completely on practical effects, with elaborate sets, costumes, and some marvelous ingenuity. Because the last act is not set up by the first two, though, much of the film is lacking a dramatic momentum, or a goal the characters are working towards accomplishing. As delightful as the last hour or so is, it largely feels like an entirely different movie than what was laid out for us in the first hour. Still, if you’re willing to go along with Scorsese and his characters on the journey, you’ll find yourself swept away in the beauty by the end, even through the film’s slower moments.
Hugo is not Martin Scorsese’s best film, but it certainly is his most beautiful. It seems like it also must be his most personal, with young Hugo Cabret’s love of cinema as an escape from harsh reality somewhat representative of Scorsese’s childhood, and the beginnings of his passion. There are some slight pacing issues, but at the end of the day, Hugo is a spectacle worth witnessing in theaters. It’s pure imagination and wonder projected on screen, awing its viewers just as the very first films awed their audiences, making them think a train was really headed right towards them. At its height, Hugo stands as a true testament to the power of adventure, imagination, and the cinema as a place where dreams are made.