Martin Scorsese may not have been a good fit for a Christmas time family friendly tent pole movie, but when you examine what the movie is really about – Marty is your man. This adventure is mostly about Hugo, but at its core it’s about love of film and the preservation thereof.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan hiding in the Gare Montparnasse railway station. He had a devoted clockmaker father (Jude Law) but tragedy separated them but not before his father found a neglected automaton in the attic of a museum in which he worked. The two started repairing the writing mechanical man before his father’s death so Hugo thinks that fixing it will result in a message from his deceased father.
He was taken in by his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone) whose job it was to keep the railway station’s clocks working, a job that Hugo assumed when his uncle vanished. To survive he has to steal from the station and keep out of the clutches of Inspector Gustave (Sacha Baron Cohen), the railway inspector and despiser of orphans.
This thievery has been noticed by toyshop owner Georges (Ben Kingsley) and when he catches Hugo he confiscates his father’s notebook that has drawings of the automaton, which seem to spark some memory in the old man. Hugo is desperate to get it back as it is the last vestige of his father and enlists Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) to get it back.
Together they will discover a deeper mystery involving Georges and why he hasn’t let Isabelle every see a moving picture.
I danced around a major plot twist in that description. Many reviews mention that right off but I’ve saved it for my appreciation of the film, so spoilers may be in this paragraph. You’ve been warned.
The revelation is that the world-weary, downtrodden railway toy shop owner is Georges Melies, one of the pioneers of cinema. A fictional story has been woven around Melies life but he really encountered all the hardships shown and was happily rediscovered before his death.
Melies was certainly one whose showmanship and creativity was brought to vivid life by his films – not just the street scenes or ordinary things that were the staple of early cinema. He put his dreams on the screen and it was fascinating, even today but alas much of his work is lost. He made over 500 films, but only about 200 survive today.
Scorcese takes much of Hugo to appreciate the pioneer as well as celebrate our, as well as his, love of movies. He even pitches preservation so that our film history is not lost, neglected, or melted down for chemicals, as Melies catalog was. This is the major driving force of the film, but we also get it bound together with Hugo’s story and his interest in Isabelle, played wonderfully by both young actors. Kingsley is also excellent as Melies, both downtrodden and sparkling when talking about his cinema of dreams and rediscovery.
We also have some nice bits of business in the station with the romance between Gustave and flower girl Lisette (Emily Mortimer) and between café owner Madame Emile (Frances de la Tour) and newspaper seller Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths) that is nearly scuttled by the dislike of Madame’s dog.
Monsiuer Labisse (Christopher Lee) adds a stately literary elegance to the bookseller, although if he knew what movies would do to his business he might not have befriended and helped Hugo. Que sera sera. Gustave provides much of the comedy relief in his pursuit of Hugo, but each character has a nice moment during the film. It’s a lovely film on all counts.
Hugo is presented in a stunning 1080p high definition transfer (1.85:1). Special features, all in high def, include the 20 minute “Shoot the Moon” making of, a 15 minute profile of Melies, a 13 minute look at the history of automatons, a 6 minute look at the special effects, and a 3 minute focus on Cohen. Disc two is a DVD/digital copy.
Hugo won many technical awards at the Oscars (cinematography, art direction, visual effects, sound editing, and sound mixing) but didn’t win best picture or director. Such is a shame since it excels in both. If you’ve ever loved cinema then you’ll fall in love with Hugo.
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