Asa Butterfield mimics Harold Lloyd in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo

It’s a long time getting there, but Martin Scorsese eventually breathes stirring life into Hugo, the story of a little boy, an automaton and a sad old man. Each of them is broken, missing a part that keeps them from working as they should, but each of them is interconnected in ways they can’t fathom. Within that unexpected connection lies the key that will make them all whole again.

Orphaned when his father died in a fire, Hugo Cabret lives within the walls of the Montparnasse train station in Paris in the early 1930s. There he keeps all the station’s clocks wound and in working order in the absence of his missing uncle to whom Hugo had been sent to live. With no one to take care of him, Hugo sneaks food from nearby shops, all the while performing his duties and avoiding the nasty station inspector who takes a special joy in having street children hauled off to the orphanage.

The only thing Hugo has left connecting him to his father, a watchmaker and a tinkerer, is a broken automaton found abandoned in a museum attic which Hugo and his father had been working to put back together again. Poring through his father’s notebook filled with intricate notes and drawings of the machine-man, Hugo tries to bring it back to life himself, nicking gears and springs and spare parts from a toy seller who operates a booth at the station. Hugo’s routine is broken and the drama begins, however, when the toy seller catches him in the act and takes the notebook away as punishment, threatening to burn it. How will Hugo get the notebook back and why did the toy seller react to it with such revulsion? To answer these questions, Hugo teams up with the toy seller’s precocious god-daughter Isabelle and the adventure begins.

As in the Brian Selznick book from which Hugo is adapted, the early part of the story is honestly kind of a slog. Asa Butterfield is excellent as the haunted little boy, but the character isn’t ultimately all that interesting. Chloe Grace Moretz fares a little better as Isabelle because that character is more well-rounded and sympathetic. I’d rather see her story than Hugo’s. Perhaps I’m projecting, but there’s also a sense that Scorsese isn’t all that invested in this story of an orphaned boy either. Tellingly, the best scene between Hugo and Isabelle is when the two sneak into a movie theater to see a Harold Lloyd picture. Scorsese lingers on their faces as they light up in delight and wonder at the iconic clock scene from Safety Last. His enthusiasm for that flickering magic captured in the dark is infectious and it’s the first time you can really feel Hugo’s beating heart.

To punch up the less interesting early going, Scorsese and his screenwriter John Logan expand the role of the station inspector and give him over to comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen. There are several chase sequences between Cohen and Hugo which should keep the kiddies occupied while giving the nearly 70-year-old director a chance to play around in his new 3D sandbox. Instead of using 3D to have things fly off the screen, Scorsese plunges into the depths of a scene by weaving the camera between and circling around characters and objects. It’s nifty, but I’m still not convinced 3D is a new film language that can be used to enrich drama. Frankly, I’d like to see the film again in less murky 2D to better appreciate Dante Ferretti’s wonderful production design.

After showing glimmers of life during the Harold Lloyd scene, Hugo really begins to pop in the final 45 minutes as the mystery surrounding the toy seller played by the great Ben Kingsley starts to take shape. Kingsley is really the heart and soul of the picture and the transformation he goes through as his gruff old man exterior is slowly pulled away is wonderful. Helen McCrory is also wonderful as the toy seller’s wife, a woman with a few secrets of her own. Also great is Michael Stuhlbarg as a film scholar and preservationist. He’s almost a surrogate for the director and it is here that the story veers onto the subject of the pioneers of early cinema and of preserving and reviving the cinematic past. These are two subjects that Scorsese lives and breathes and they’re the final ingredient to making Hugo sing. His loving recreation of Georges Melies’ glass box stage and of the elaborate production behind the seminal sci-fi/fantasy classic Le Voyage dans la lune is thrilling. These sequences are all greatly expanded from Selznick’s book and it is here that Scorsese finally feels in his element. All of the story’s pieces that had slowly been put into place over the first 90 minutes quietly and beautifully come alive.

Though it’s slow going at first, Hugo finally builds to a powerful and moving conclusion. Perhaps Scorsese’s most heartfelt work, Hugo is his ode to the timeless magic of motion pictures, to their ability to capture our dreams and to rekindle them when they are lost. It’s an expression of his love affair with cinema and it’s also about the peace that comes from simply finding the place where you belong.


24 Responses to “Hugo (2011)”

  1. Well, I won’t be seeing the film until 7:35 this evening in 3D with the family, but that didn’t stop me from reading your unusually impassioned review and stellar rating (yes I surmise the four-star, rather than four-and-a-half or five-star rating has to do with that slow opening) but it’s more than telling that you say that it may be Scorsese’s most “heartfelt” work. And further stating that Scorsese is ‘finally in his element’ says it all as far as HUGO is concerned. But there are so many more goodies here! I plan to pen my own review on it late tonight, and if I can come up with just half of all your cogent insights and descriptive gems, I’d be doing good. Truly one of your finest reviews, with magical prose to fit the subject.

  2. The ending really got me. The stuff with Melies was just wonderful, but I should hasten to add that my reaction to the opening 2/3s might have been marred by a poor 3D presentation. Ordinarily this theater is top shelf, but something about the tech they use (it’s different than the Real D with the plastic wrapped 3D glasses) I fear has led to three bad 3D experiences in a row with movies people have otherwise raved about the 3D: Coraline, Avatar and now this one.

    I liked what Scorsese did with the 3D as I said above, but the image was very dim and murky and the picture would separate on the edges of the frame, unless I would physically turn my head to look in that direction. Very distracting and very disappointing.

  3. That’s too bad about that theatre system. That could have indeed adversely affected teh overall experience. We opted to go with the 3D with this as well, tonight.

  4. I’ll try it again either in RealD or 2D or both and see what happens.

    To my mind though, a movie should stand up by itself in any dimension, and the early going on this one just didn’t get there for me, but then I wasn’t crazy about that part of the book either.

  5. I will add that when offered the choice of 3D or non 3D I always opt for the latter, though in this one instance I bowed to Scorsese.

  6. Even anti-3D Ebert acknowledged that it was well done here. I just wish I had been able to properly appreciate it.

  7. Well, I saw it last night in dazzling 3D and was deeply moved by the experience.

    It it certainly a 4.5 with me, and close to a 5 star rating. Perhaps it dragged along a bit in the middle, but I can’t hold too much stock in that, as there is so much to be ravished by. Perhaps because I am avery big fan of silent cinema and Melias, I was taken even more, not to mention a big fan of Selznick’s Caldecott Medal winner, but this was pure magic, and Marty has crossed over in flying colors. The kids liked it too, though they are seasoned movie fans now, who can especially connect to films that serve in part as homages.

  8. Glad you were dazzled Sam. I look forward to trying again and I should add that even as brutal as I found the first half, the ending more than makes this into a huge winner for me.

  9. I’ll be curious to hear what you think of it in 2D, Craig. I saw it today in 2D and I really can’t see any need for the 3D, although I’m sure Scorsese did some interesting things with it. This technicolor storybook fantasy doesn’t look much like anything Scorsese has every done before and I was hard-pressed to find many of the tell-tale signs of his visual style, but it’s gorgeous and visually exciting all the same. The first two acts do really drag and I agree that the film only comes into its own when Hugo and Isabelle begin to investigate the world of cinema. Everyone was good but I think Stuhlbarg really stole all of his scenes.

  10. I didn’t even know Stuhlbarg was in it, but he was fantastic. His interactions with the Melies’ were priceless. I credited Kingsley with being the movie’s soul, but he shares it with Stuhlbarg I think.

    I’m smiling even now thing of the last 30 or so minutes of this movie.

  11. I think it’s his most interesting film in a few years and has a lot of emotion towards the second half. It’s dull at times and certainly not a gripping adventure/kids film (is this really a kids movie at all?) Not a Scorsese classic for me, but it has some wonderful moments. Any film that brings attention to the Silent era is a good thing.

    Scorsese did some neat stuff with 3d, but I was never awed by it. Not like I was for that 3d “Titanic” trailer. The 3d in that trailer looked significantly better than anything in “Hugo”. Even “Phantom Menace” had a cool 3d trailer.

  12. Really? I thought Titanic looked wretched, but again I fear it was the presentation and not the film itself.

    Still, I don’t see myself caughing up a 3D premium to see that one again unless they cut out all the dialogue and remove Celine Dion from the closing credits.

    I wonder too, aside from Sam’s budding cinephile family, how much kids will dig Hugo. Maybe kids are smarter than I give them credit for and they will respond to an adventure that doesn’t pander to them.

  13. I thought the “Titanic” trailer looked immense. That had a real sense of depth and space to it, and it felt like I was being absorbed into the image. I felt that a couple times during “Hugo”, but not all that much. I didn’t think the 3d enhanced Scorsese’s film the way Cameron enhanced “Avatar” with 3d.

    I’m okay with “Titanic”, bad dialogue, sappy moments, annoying theme song and all. I think it’s a good piece of Hollywood spectacle with some extraordinary visual fx. I think DiCaprio and Winslet are good in it too. Actually, seeing the trailer again reminded me of how good DiCaprio is in roles where he actually smiles and laughs a few times. I just feel like he’s better when he’s charming, not brooding and sorrowful and angry. I’d like to see him do something like “Titanic” or “Catch Me If You Can” again.

  14. 80% of my revulsion for Titanic comes from all the hype that came afterward and that dickish letter Cameron wrote to Ken Turan complaining about the negative review and the egotistical Oscar speeches etc. etc.

    I’ve only ever actually seen the movie once and that was when it first came out. I remember being awed by the recreation of the ship and the actiony parts of the finale. The rest of it, including the bookends, were just ok. Neither terrible nor great.

    Since it wasn’t conceived of in 3D, I don’t see how it will possibly benefit from being presented that way, but then we all know I’m a little grouchy on the whole subject of 3D. So far, the documentary Pina is the only movie I’ve seen where I felt like it was better in 3D than it would be in 2D.

  15. The bookends are what almost kill “Titanic” for me. That’s the stuff I wish he left on the cutting room floor. The romantic stuff on the ship is sometimes great, sometimes “ehhh”, but overall it works for what it is. The last half of the film is intense and well-crafted. I like the movie as a theatrical experience. It’s not something I care to revisit on tv. I think 3d will add to it.

    But back to “Hugo”, I like the film a lot. And like Sam, I’m a big fan of silent films, so to see Scorsese give audiences a mini history lesson on that era was cool to see, especially since he chose to highlight clips from several films he discusses in his documentary, “A Personal Journey”. The second half of the film is terrific. I also enjoyed Sacha Baron Cohen’s character a lot. In fact I wish he had a little more to do in the film. To be honest, the least interesting characters are the kids to me, or really the girl. I also love the fluid CGI-enhanced camerawork on display here. Excellent use of the train station as a location and the various characters who work there. When was the last time we saw Scorsese cameo in one of his movies before “Hugo”? I think it was “Gangs of NY”.

    So yeah, this is one of the better films this year.

  16. Odd, the bookends are the more interesting parts of “Titanic”, for me. All the romantic stuff for me is either just there, or mildly okay. I was impressed with the scale and the scope of everything, but when I look back on it now, the star-crossed love aspect and the class issues it looks at feel like cheap attempts to add a greater dramatic weight to the grand spectacle of watching a giant luxury cruise liner sink into the ocean. It’s like crossing “Romeo and Juliet” with one of those old Irwin Allen disaster flicks. The theatrical experience was cool, just like “Avatar” was on Imax, but beyond that it all just kinda falls into bland basic-cable sameness for me, as most Cameron efforts do.

    I hope to see “Hugo” this weekend at some point. I do fear a little that it’s mostly in love with the kind of silent cinema I either dislike with a passion (silent comedies, even of the beloved Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd schools, bore me to death) or have little more than an academic appreciation of (Melies is cool for his innovations, but I can’t say I care about his work terribly). It’s Scorsese, so of course I’ll give the film its due, but I will say that if he was going to revisit the silent-era, I wish he had found a children’s book about kids getting caught up in a whirlwind adventure with Fritz Lang in Weimar Germany instead (then again, I think that was the plot of a “Full Metal Alchemist” movie).

  17. (Bob staring at the Mona Lisa) Nice frame. Not sure about the painting though.

  18. I’m not sure about the painting. I’m not sure about the painting at all.

  19. Yeah, he does pay tribute to Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd among others. I guess I’m surprised to hear you dislike those people with a passion. Chaplin, for me, is a cinema genius not only as a performer but as a director. “City Lights” is one of the best films ever made. This is not debatable. :) The ending is one of the best ever

  20. Comedy is a very subjective thing, and for me, a binary thing. Either it works, or it doesn’t. They may be admirable pieces of craft for their time, but I don’t really find those guys funny, so there’s nothing for me to honestly enjoy. Keaton and Lloyd can impress with the scale and scope of their stunt set-pieces, but I only get those on an intellectual level, rather than visceral or emotional.

    Chaplin I’m even less into, and the only films of his I can kind of appreciate are the sound ones. “City Lights” is sentimental horseradish, to me. I think there’s an episode of “Taxi” that repeats the blind-girl-operation storyline with the Danny DeVito character, and I prefer that version.

    Again, comedy is subjective. The only genre I can think of that’d be more up to personal whims would be porn, and even that depends on the kink.

  21. Great write-up, Ari.

  22. How can any film fan be bored by Buster Keaton? His witty use of framing, camera and action are visionary. I’ve seen an audience of gangbangers cheer and applaud Harold Lloyd in SPEEDY. Check it out!

    I really liked HUGO, thought the 3D worked wonderful, tho I wasn’t as engaged with the young leads and the Sasha Cohen stuff never gelled, the gags somehow badly timed and the phone call jokes were lame. I felt there was a good arc there that never developed. Kingsley is awesome though and how can you not appreciate a Scorcese 3-D kid’s film featuring Sir Christopher Lee?

  23. I still haven’t rewatched it with proper 3D presentation, but as I said above even with bad 3D the ending was sublime.

    Kingsley and Stuhlbarg were my favorite parts, but yeah Sir Christopher was a nice touch. I was happy with the Sacha Baron Cohen stuff for simply not getting in the way. The original trailer emphasized that part of it and I was worried that’d be all there was.

  24. Did I call THE FRESHMAN “SPEEDY”? Doh.

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