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Josh Reviews Hugo (3-D)

Martin Scorsese isn’t exactly the first name I think of when I think about family-friendly adventure films, but with Hugo, the master proves once and again his incredible control of the medium of film, no matter the genre.  Hugo is a breathtaking work of genius, and I found myself enraptured by the film’s propulsive energy and the exuberant love for film and, indeed, for all works of art, that pores out of every frame of the movie.

The Hugo in Hugo (adapted from from The Adventures of Hugo Cabret, which was written and illustrated by Brian Selznick) is a young boy living in the walls of a Paris train-station in the 1930’s.  His parents are dead, and the uncle who adopted him is a drunkard who eventually abandoned him.  But not before teaching young Hugo how to mind all of the clocks in the station, a task which Hugo has secretly continued to do.  All the while he has scrounged tools and supplies to work on repairing a broken automata (an elaborate wind-up figure), which he and his father were working on together before his father’s death.  When Hugo is caught, mid-theft, by the crochety old man who runs a small toy booth in the station, Hugo agrees to work for him to repay what he has stolen.  He is quickly befriended by the intelligent, well-read young girl, Isabelle, in the man’s care.  The bond between Hugo and Isabelle grows as they start to realize that the old man, whom she refers to as Papa Georges, hides secrets of his own, including a possible connection to Hugo’s automata.

In my first paragraph I described Hugo as a family-friendly film, but don’t take that to mean that the film is childish or simplistic.  Quite the contrary, I found Hugo to be richly layered and nuanced.  There is fun adventure to be had as the tale unfolds, but also great sadness and melancholy.  (If you’re looking for something to compare it to, in tone, I would direct you to Pixar’s Up.)

Right from the opening frames, the film is gorgeous.  Mr. Scorsese uses visual effects with extraordinary aplomb.  The opening shots juxtapose the gorgeous city-scape of 1930’s Paris with the complex gears and inner mechanisms of a clock, and the sequence is thrilling and clever.  The environment of the city, and of the city-within-the-city that the train station represents, is brought to fully-realized, teeming life.  I don’t know where the beautiful costumes and sets end and the computer-generated effects begin, and that’s just the way I like it.  Every frame of the film is packed with fascinating imagery — if my eye ever wandered from the main action, there was always so much of interest happening around the edges of the screen!  Not that my eye wandering from the main action was ever much of a threat.  Mr. Scorsese knows exactly how to direct the eye of his viewers, taking us along on this enchanted ride.  He also puts younger filmmakers to shame with the way in which he handles the film’s 3-D effects.  I assume Mr. Scorsese had a talented team of craftsmen assisting him, and they all deserve credit for their use of 3-D to create an immersive viewing experience that never becomes intrusive.  They apply the 3-D with a light touch, giving dimensionality to the world without ever overwhelming the viewer.  Outside of Pixar’s animated films, this is the best use of 3-D I’ve seen since Avatar.

Asa Butterfield plays Hugo, and Chloe Grace Moretz (so memorable as Hit Girl in Kick Assclick here for my review) plays Isabelle, and both young kids acquit themselves well.  There are a handful of moments when the two feel a bit “actorly,” but overall I found them both to be quite compelling.  However, it’s Ben Kingsley as Papa Georges who steals the show.  It’s an emotional, complex role and Mr. Kingsley absolutely devours it.  When we first meet him, Georges is a bitter shell of a man.  He’s tough and cruel to Hugo (even though the lad WAS stealing from him!).  But it quickly becomes apparent that Papa Georges carries a deep well of sadness within him, and the tragic source of that sadness becomes the main thrust of the second half of the film.

Viewers who know of Georges Melies and La Voyage Dans La Lune will be way ahead of Hugo and Isabelle in figuring out the mystery.  (I encountered Melies’ work back in college, and I also know him as the focus of the final episode of the terrific mini-series From The Earth to The Moon.)  But Hugo is so well-crafted that it doesn’t matter.  Those audience members who have no idea who Georges Melies is will be delighted to discover the truth, along with Hugo and Isabelle.  Those audience members who DO know and are able to put the pieces together early-on will still be delighted at this telling of the story of one of cinema’s great pioneers.  I did not expect this tale of a young boy and his automata to wind up in this territory!  I enjoyed the first half of Hugo immensely, but when it becomes apparent that there is more to this story than a simple coming-of-age tale, that Mr. Scorsese and his team are aiming to tell a story that also encompasses the very history of film as well as issues of the preservation of that history that remain so critical to this day, I realized that I was watching a masterpiece unfold.

And I haven’t even yet mentioned my favorite character in the film: Sacha Baron Cohen as the Station Inspector.  The Inspector is Hugo’s main foil throughout the film.  He seems to be a cruel man, focused on maintaining the order within his station, and he’s not above imprisoning orphan kids (and shipping them off to an apparently unpleasant orphanage) to do it.  When we first glimpse the Inspector, with his funny accent and damaged limb, he reminded me of Inspector Kemp from Young Frankenstein.  The Station Inspector’s lunatic chase of Hugo across the station, early in the film, leads one to believe that he is exactly that sort of comic-relief authority figure.  But here again Mr. Scorsese, aided by screenwiter John Logan’s strong adaptation of the material (I can’t believe this is the same man who wrote the script for the abysmal Star Trek: Nemesis) and a fantastic performance by Sacha Baron Cohen, subvert expectations and slowly, gently, show us that there is much more to the inspector than meets the eye.  He might still be a villain, at least from Hugo’s perspective, but I bet that you, like me, will also be rooting for the Inspector a little bit by the end of the film.

I don’t want to forget the great Christopher Lee as the librarian, Emily Mortimer as the young girl working the flower stand, Ray Winstone as Hugo’s drunk uncle, Jude Law as Hugo’s father, and the many other very talented actors and actresses — famous or not — who fill out the edges of the film’s story.  It’s a wonderful group, and they give the film enormous depth.

Hugo is sweet and enchanting.  It’s energetic and exciting and beautiful.  Can you tell that I loved it?  This is a film I can’t wait to revisit, as I’m sure there are many rewards to be found upon a repeat viewing.  How could I expect any less from Martin Scorsese?

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