After dabbling in television (Boardwalk Empire) and documenting a Beatle (George Harrison: Living In The Material World), Martin Scorsese returns to the big screen with Hugo. The 3-D, family-friendly tale manages to out-Spielberg Steven Spielberg, who has two films on offer this season.
Hugo manages to be both a Dickens-like story that will appeal to children and homage to the early silent film industry and one pioneering director in particular. It is also an eye-popping example of what 3-D technology is capable of, put in the right hands.
The film’s story is based upon the novel by Brian Selznick called The Invention Of Hugo Cabret. The screenplay, written by John Logan, is set inParis in the early 1930s where a young orphan boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is living a hand-to-mouth existence in a bustling railway station, earning his keep by maintaining the station’s clocks. Hugo’s late father, seen in flashback played by Jude Law, was a master watchmaker who took his young son to the cinema on a regular basis. He also owned an automaton, an early robotic machine that was programmed to write a message. Hugo is obsessed with repairing the broken automaton after the death of his father and then his alcoholic uncle who brought him to the station to live.
The first half of the film revolves around Hugo’s adventures in the station, mostly trying to stay out of sight from the local constable, Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) and the owner of a small toy shop, Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley).
Eventually Hugo meets a young girl who happens to live with Georges and who also happens to hold the key to repairing his beloved automaton. From there the film takes a turn, focussing on Georges Melies past as one of the most inventive and creative early filmmakers. Most of the details of Georges’ story are based on fact, which makes the second half of the film so much more engrossing than the first. It turns out Melies produced hundred of films from the late 1800’s until the first World War. You have probable seen his 1902 classic, A Trip To The Moon. By the 1920’s, Melies and his work was virtually forgotten and he did indeed work in a toy store in a Parisian rail station.
Scorsese’s passion for cinema comes through loud and clear, bringing the film to a heart-warming conclusion.
But the highlights start from the very beginning. Scorsese opening the film with a stunning flyover shot ofParisthat immediately makes it clear that the 3-D effect is being used to its best advantage. The intricate mechanics of the automaton, full of spinning cogs and gears, is a wonder.
Sacha Baron Cohen turns in a relatively subdued performance, which is appropriate for the film. Likewise, Ben Kingsley is excellent as the disheartened filmmaker-turned-shopkeeper. Jude Law seemed like the only casting mistake; one wonders why Johnny Depp, who is one of the producers, didn’t step in to, what is essentially a cameo role.
There is no doubt that this film will be one of the year’s biggest and a certain Oscar contender. If I was a 13-year-old boy, I would have been enthralled from beginning to end. As an adult, I admit that I could have done without much of the first half and would have appreciated a more serious film purely about Georges Melies. But, there is plenty to admire (especially from a technical standpoint) and Scorsese’s obvious love of the subject comes shining through at the end.