Movie Review: Hugo

By Matthew Huntley

December 6, 2011

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Upon leaving Hugo, I asked myself if any other director could have been as impassioned with this story as Martin Scorsese. Even the most casual filmgoer knows that Scorsese is a man who loves the movies. He loves making them; he loves watching them; and he loves talking about them. Hugo is a movie that gave him the opportunity to do all three and probably a whole lot more. This is Scorsese’s most heartfelt and imaginative film, busting with wonder and amazement amidst a romantic yet equally harsh world. It’s sort of a filmmaker’s dream.

Based on the novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, the film is a children’s tale, but it’s hardly just for children. It contains themes that are simple yet universal, like humans yearning for a place to belong, feeling loved and seeing life’s ambitions, however lofty, through to completion. It’s not a terribly complicated story, but it’s one we feel and that speaks to us both as former children and present adults.

The time is the 1930s, just before World War II. The place is Paris, France, where in the city’s busiest railway station a little boy named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) fixes and maintains all the clocks. He does this so the station’s mean inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) won’t find out that Hugo’s Uncle Claude (Ray Winston) isn’t doing the job himself. So long as Hugo keeps the clocks running, no one will get suspicious his uncle left and Hugo will have something to do and a place to stay.

During the day, he steals food from the station bakery and various tools from the toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley), whose character’s name shall remain anonymous. Hugo has become quite the observer of daily life in the station, exploring it from all its nooks and crannies, which gives him an advantage should he ever need to hide or avoid the inspector, who loves finding wandering, parentless children and sending them to the orphanage. Maybe the station florist (Emily Mortimer) can soften him up a bit.


Hugo keeps a notebook of mechanical instructions and is working hard to repair an old automaton he and his father (Jude Law) found. When his father met an untimely death, the resourceful Hugo has had to figure things out on his own, but when the toy shop owner catches Hugo stealing, he takes his notebook and threatens to burn it. Hugo’s only hope for getting it back is the owner’s friendly goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), who loves to read and get caught up in fantasy and adventure. Strangely, though, she’s never been to the movies, and Hugo sneaks them into Safety Last! starring Harold Lloyd and she’s immediately in awe of the famous scene where Lloyd clenches to the clock outside the building (this scene still has the power to fascinate anyone who sees it). When Hugo shows Isabelle the automaton, he confesses he thinks his father is trying to send him a message through it and that’s why it’s so important he finds all the tools and missing pieces to fix it.

Where the story goes from here, I hesitate to say, but it serves not only as a touching drama but also a an enduring history lesson. This is a remarkably inventive and beautifully designed film, thanks in large part to Scorsese’s longtime production designer, Dante Ferretti, and his team of artists, who have created an original and mesmerizing cityscape of 1930s Paris and all its interiors. Fused with Robert Richardson’s ceaselessly energetic cinematography and some detailed special effects, we get to explore this world inside out, and it’s made all the richer for having been shot in 3D. For once, the format is utilized instead of merely exploited. A movie like Hugo calls for 3D because the extra dimension provides a heightened sense of the constant action. We really feel like we’re at the train station - it becomes our surroundings as well as the characters’.

I mentioned the story is somewhat simple, and it is, but it’s also deeply emotional, especially the scenes involving the toy shop owner and his loving wife (Helen McCrory). Through ways you’ll have to discover for yourself, Scorsese takes us on an engaging history lesson of film and we fully come to appreciate the pioneers of the medium. By the end, I not only felt re-educated on the subject, but I was on the verge of tears during one powerful close-up exchange.

This is technically a family picture, but will little kids appreciate it? They may identify with the hero, but the film as a whole is somewhat of an endurance test. Like most Scorsese pictures, Hugo suffers from going on too long and the director still hasn’t grasped that less can sometimes be more. He is perhaps too in love with his footage and wants to make sure we get what he’s trying to tell us. All of this is done with the noblest intentions, but there comes a point where he has to let go in the name of leaner storytelling.

Still, Hugo is a remarkable achievement, one that I could see myself experiencing many times over. There’s so much to take in visually that at times it feels overwhelming, but in a good way, and the actors, especially Butterfield and the veteran Kingsley, keep our hearts invested so the film has meaning beyond just a technical exercise. If, for some reason, you were unaware that Martin Scorsese is head over heels in love with the cinema, Hugo is his way of letting us know. He shares that love with us and we gladly accept.



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