Many films that end up being ostensibly about the process of film making itself and the passionate genius of directors often become bogged down in sentimentality or pomposity. Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Hugo, includes a sequence that could operate as a primer for a Film 101 class, in which two children sit in a library and read from a book of film history. The sequence could be stuffy, a perfunctory information dump, but in Scorsese’s hands it becomes one of the most visually striking moments in a film that contains dozens of gorgeous set pieces. Instead of stopping the film dead, the old footage bursts the story out of the screen as powerfully as the locomotive in the Lumière brothers’ film reel which startled carnival audiences in 1895.
Much of Hugo revolves around one of the giants of early cinema, George Méliès, in tribute to his artistry, but Scorsese never loses sight of his lead character, an orphaned and abandoned urchin living in the clockworks above the busy floor of a train station in Paris in the 1920’s. Based on the illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, the story follows Hugo as he survives as best as he can, swiping croissants from the station bakery and trying to stay one step ahead of the station agent, a war veteran with a mechanical apparatus on his leg, played with Clouseau-esque befuddlement by Sacha Baron Cohen. Apart from food, Hugo also steals parts from the station toy shop, run by a mysterious old crank known only as Papa Georges.
When Hugo meets Papa Georges’ goddaughter, Isabelle, he finds that she possesses the key to a mechanical man that Hugo’s father had tried unsuccessfully to repair. The key allows the automaton to run again, revealing its true purpose and a message not only for Hugo but for Isabelle and her family. The central mystery of the film is fairly easy to decipher, but the story moves so deftly and the characters are so warm and real that it hardly matters. You root for Hugo and Isabelle as they run around the wintry streets of Paris, bringing a little light into the life of everyone around them. By investigating the mystery of his own life Hugo is able to connect to even the distant Papa Georges, played with tender, bruised dignity by Sir Ben Kingsley.
Hugo is played by fourteen-year-old Asa Butterfield, whose soulful eyes convey intelligence and vulnerability throughout. From living constantly on the run, Hugo is hyper-aware of his surroundings, and both Butterfield’s performance and Scorsese’s dynamic direction bring that vigilance to life. Isabelle is played with brilliant enthusiasm by Chloe Grace Moretz, best known for her role as as Hit Girl in Kick-Ass, who is well on her way to becoming a true movie star.
Scorsese seems liberated by his central character and the marvelous world that he inhabits. Not since the early stretches of Goodfellas, as Henry Hill is introduced to the glamorous exterior of mafia life, has Scorsese created a world that shines with such vibrancy. Scorsese’s previous experiments with CGI, in Gangs of New York and The Aviator, felt obtrusive to the actors and the story, but in Hugo the elegant use of CGI allows Scorsese to be grand in a way we’ve never seen in his work. One early tracking shot is especially impressive, following down from the skies above the city straight into the heart of the train station and depositing you among the rushing throng of commuters.
Hugo makes the best case yet for the power of 3D in film. The 3D effects are even better than the effects in Avatar, and because the story is engaging (unlike Avatar’s snooze of a story), the 3D allows you to become immersed in Hugo’s world and in his head. When Baron Cohen’s station agent leans slowly forward to question Hugo, he leans right into your face as well, and you feel the same sneering danger that our hero does.
The 3D in Hugo is more than just an effect. Scorsese uses it as a storytelling tool, in subtle ways. When Hugo takes Isabelle to her first movie the screen itself is flat, but because she is in 3D we feel her excitement, terror, and joy as she watches Harold Lloyd hang perilously from the hands of a clock (a famous moment that is later recreated with dizzying effect). Later, while Papa Georges discusses the bleak pall of post World War I Europe, Scorsese shows old war footage rendered in 3D, which brings the haunted, broken soldiers to life in a way that old newsreels themselves could not. When we first see Méliès’ films we watch them on a flat screen along with our characters, but at the end of the film those remarkable old films are rendered in 3D and brilliant color, showing off the depth and beauty of the intricate sets that Méliès used.As a film experience, Hugo is as transporting for this generation as Méliès’ works were for his, and a triumphant victory for Martin Scorsese. It’s Scorsese’s most complete film in years, and possibly his best since Goodfellas. With Hugo, Scorsese is able to indulge both his inner child and his inner film geek, resulting in the most personal and humane work of his storied career.