“If you ever wondered where your dreams come from… this is where they’re made!”
I believe in Martin Scorsese. I believe whatever this man makes is worth the price of admission – whether it’s abusive boxers or repressed 18century aristocrats or psychotic loners or gangsters from Queens or cops with daddy issues or even Jesus Christ struggling with his faith – when Martin Scorsese makes a movie, I will give it a shot. When I read that Scorsese was making a 3-D family movie about an orphan who lived in a Paris train station, I was game. Even when the trailers made it look like a derivative stinker, I remained cautiously optimistic. I’m glad I retained the cautious optimism because Hugo, the master filmmaker’s latest feature is not just the best family film I’ve seen this year but one of the best films in the great director’s oeuvre. What Scorsese has crafted in Hugo is an unbelievably immersive and touching movie-going experience that’s simultaneously exciting, intoxicating, captivating, and most of all, a buoyant love letter to film history, preservation and what it means to be a lover of cinema.
From its very opening shot in which cogs of a clock magically transform into a bird’s eye view of the city of Paris at night, it’s evident that what we’re in for is something special. As the camera begins to move and descend into the city, we’re taken on a ride via a fluid and uninterrupted shot that flows into a gorgeous train station, between the tracks, and then onto the main lobby, towards a clock, and finally stopping on a close-up of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a boy who lives between the walls of the station.
Orphaned after his father (Jude Law) dies in a fire, and subsequently abandoned by his alcoholic watchmaker uncle (Ray Winstone) who worked at the station, Hugo is a resourceful kid who spends his time winding the clocks, fixing them, stealing food, fixing a robot his father left him, and avoiding the clutches of Inspector Gustav (a comical Sasha Baron Cohen), a clumsy but conniving oaf who’d like nothing more than chucking Hugo into an orphanage. When a tough-as-nails toy store owner (a wonderful Ben Kingsley) catches Hugo trying to steal a toy whose parts he needs to fix his robot, the old toymaker forces him to work for him.
When it turns out that the toymaker’s goddaughter Isabelle (the precocious Chloe Moretz) literally holds the key to the secret message in Hugo’s robot, the movie, which takes some time to get into gear, takes off into the realm of cinema magic. It’s also here that I realized why Scorsese, a director renowned for his film preservation work, was attracted to Brian Selznick’s illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret in the first place. It isn’t only because it was family-friendly but because the premise offered him the opportunity to tell the story of Georges Méliès, the great French pioneer of early cinema. Like The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius’ splendid homage to American silent cinema, Scorsese uses Hugo to transport us back to the early days of film, and to teach younger audiences about its power, its impact on lives and the importance of preserving its beauty for future generations.
Enhancing the magical element of Hugo is the stunning 3-D. I’ve never been an advocator of the medium but leave it up to Martin Scorsese to waltz right in and show everyone how it’s done. What Scorsese does with 3-D in this film is nothing short of miraculous. It’s as if the camera, which swerves in-and-out and over the landscape of the picture via fluid uninterrupted takes, takes a life of its own. In Scorsese’s hands, 3-D isn’t a cheap gimmick to cheat you off your money but a vital aspect of an immersive experience. I was floored by it. Boosting the film’s aesthetic appeal even further are Dante Ferretti’s meticulously crafted and lavish art direction, Robert Richardson’s sumptuous cinematography and Howard Shore’s elegant score.
Movies may not be as important as other things in life but they provide us with an escape into magical worlds we are capable of reproducing only in our dreams. Martin Scorsese’s imaginative masterwork Hugo is one of those magical films. It’s a picture that took me away to another time and era like no film this year has managed to. This sumptuously-shot and touchingly-told film may be the most personal and emotionally-fulfilling picture of Scorsese’s career; and in a career spanning four decades and more than a fair share of classics, that’s saying something.