Movie Review: “Hugo”

Written by Alicia Kaiser December 07, 2011

Family film + Martin Scorsese – (Impossibility + Disbelief) x Whimsy = Hugo: absolutely brilliant.

After an entire career of perfecting the portrayal of violence, modern crime and the darker side of human emotions, the last thing any of us ever expected from Martin Scorsese was a family film. But alas, here we are. At Scorsese’s hard-earned age of 69 he presents us with the PG-rated Hugo. Arguably one of the most visually breathtaking films of his career, Hugo also seems to be his most personal and heartfelt – a tender step away from the film’s many grim and brilliant predecessors.  Rather than dealing with the familiar emotions of anger, guilt and redemption, Hugo is a masterful portrayal of love; of loss; of self-discovery and is ultimately a beautifully sincere homage to his own craft: film.

Following the life of twelve-year-old orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), Hugo, based on a novel by Brian Selznick, is Martin Scorsese’s first step into the waters of family-film.  And Scorsese doesn’t just wade in – he dives in with a skilled ferocity. Hugo is also his first experimentation with 3D filming, and, as a true innovator, he changes the game entirely. Set in early 1930s France, Cabret lives reclusively within the walls of a Paris train station. Having learned the profession of clock-making from his father in happier times, Hugo secretly maintains the clocks to ensure that his makeshift home within the station’s veins remains undiscovered. Before his father dies tragically, he finds in the attic of a museum a broken, unwanted automaton. Drawn out of curiosity to the exquisite discovery, the father and son make it their mission; their hobby; their pleasure to fix the broken machine – and the pair never has the opportunity to succeed…

The film deals with Hugo’s emotional grief – being abandoned in life with a broken machine that is the only remaining tangible evidence of his father – and weaves the story in with that of an irascible old toymaker whose shop is within the station. Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) or Papa Georges, as he as referred to throughout the film, is an angry and mysterious old man. As Hugo finds his own ambitions to restore the automaton, he becomes increasingly enveloped in the life of the old grump. As he develops an unlikely and accidental friendship with Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), Papa Georges’ god-daughter, Hugo discovers that the toymaker is none other than THE Georges Méliès: the creator of fantasy cinema and the first filmmaker to discover that the medium was an effective way to tell stories rather than to project life.

Throughout Hugo, Scorsese outwardly pays homage to early film and firmly calls to action the preservation of the craft. He uses opportune scripted moments, such as movie theatre visits and flashbacks, to remind the viewer of the innovations of early cinema by its creators, the Lumiere brothers, and one of its perfectionists, Méliès. Dealing with real events of Georges Méliès’ career, Hugo reveals bitter details about the filmmaker’s struggle: We learn that in the prime of his career, Méliès created more than 500 films but, in order to save himself from bankruptcy after the war, was forced to sell the film stock so it could be melted down and turned into shoe heels. We also learn that by the 1930s less than 80 of his 500+ original films still existed, including 1902’s A Trip to the Moon, which is given heavy emotional significance throughout the film. By telling Méliès’ story from such an unobtrusive angle – from the perspective of a twelve-year-old boy who is accidently discovering the mysteries of Papa Georges’ life because he thinks it will bring him purpose after his father’s death – Scorsese is able to tell an emotional stand-alone tale of adventure while simultaneously praising the birth of creative film-making and also delivering the plea for its preservation.

As for the use of 3D – and I know everyone has an opinion about it – Scorsese, I must adamantly assert, absolutely redefines the purpose and effectiveness of the medium because he uses it simply to enhance the visual atmosphere rather than create stunts or gimmicks to disrupt it. For example, you will find no fist-punches coming out at your face and no weird wonky stunts that throw you off balance in Hugo. But you will find instances of beauty so simple and natural – like the dust particles in the air of the train station circling around your eyes – that will just leave you in awe.

Though Hugo is touted as a family film – there is no sex, gangsters, or violence – I find that the emotional depth of the film’s themes (death, loss, and finding a sense of belonging) would be quite lost on a younger audience. In fact, some of the film’s plot threads are so deeply woven through the human condition that the film almost doesn’t seem that it was meant for children at all. Scorsese just manages to tell a story that will punch you in the heart while simultaneously filling your senses with beauty and shadowing the pain with whimsy. I guarantee you will feel far too many emotions than you had anticipated from a “children’s movie”; in fact, I openly and unabashedly wept in the back row of the theatre. I cared not at all – I was embracing my feelings, damnit!

Overall, Hugo is a beautiful and brilliant film. Scorsese takes an imaginative story of a young man’s adventure and jam-packs it so full of beauty, emotions and innovative filmic techniques – as is his wont to do – that Hugo effectively transcends its purpose to simply entertain and instead forces the viewer to contemplate Scorsese’s motives. Why Hugo?  Why did Scorsese choose this story to open up to a wider, more universal audience? Hugo is a movie about movies; a movie about leaving a legacy and finding purpose. He’s made a movie that mirrors his own career; yet that somehow stands alone without dispersing a smidgen of pretention.

My Rating: 9/10


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About Alicia Kaiser

Alicia Kaiser

Alicia Kaiser: University student; Movie enthusiast; Nerd. She enjoys reading, writing, partaking in shenanigans and making sweet crafts. Currently, she is simultaneously employed by and a student at the University of Victoria. While she moseys towards her degree with Major in English Literature and a Minor in Professional Writing, she can be found in UVic Marketing doing cool, grown-up stuff. For Alicia, watching movies is comparable to (if not more important than), eating, sleeping and physical activity. Her reviews are full of passion, pizzazz, analysis, and introspection. Enjoy.

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