Martin Scorsese doing a kids film sounds like a bad April Fool’s joke that would sweep the land of tweeters and bloggers. But then again, knowing Scorsese’s affinity for film and its rich history, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that he would attempt his hand at a film that trades head shots and f-bombs for magic and wind-up toys. For those who doubted Scorsese and his foray into kid’s films, you should be ashamed of yourselves. As he has demonstrated throughout his prestigious career, Scorsese is a skilled story-teller that not only knows how to move a camera, but is able to fill his films with a level of passion that is infectious. Things aren’t any different for Hugo, Scorsese’s love letter to cinema and imagination. At the center of the film is our titular character, Hugo (Asa Butterfield). Hugo is an orphan who, after the death of his father, seeks refuge in the bowels of a Parisian train station. Even though there are thousands of people who stroll through his “home” every day, Hugo is isolated from not only paternal affection, but any form of human connection. Metaphorically speaking, there’s something to be said for his emotional distance and the fact that he lives within the walls of a train station. By asserting these notions, Scorsese boldly gives Hugo’s plight into poverty a dark edge that keeps the sentimentality from moving into cloying territory.
Aside from being a ghost in the wall that manages the station’s clocks, Hugo has a pair of hands that find himself lifting mechanical, windup toys from the station’s toy maven, “Papa” Georges (Ben Kingsley). Upon Hugo getting caught red-handed by Georges, we come to know the reason for Hugo’s interest in shoplifting toys: He has an automaton, a mechanical man that’s been created to write out messages. The significance? It’s a mechanical being that represents the last visage of Hugo’s dead father. With the automaton missing an assortment of parts, Hugo cherry picks toys from Georges until he’s caught. Hugo’s operation is not only hampered because he gets caught, but because his blueprints for the automaton are taken by Georges, who is stunned by their existence. Desperate to get his blueprints back and to understand their connection to Georges, Hugo follows the sullen toy expert everywhere he goes. Helping Hugo is Georges’ goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz). Isabelle has a need to emulate the adventures she finds in literature, thus she happily partakes in a journey that resurrects the dreams of Hugo’s family and exposes a film legend that has been erased from the halls of time. Plot wise, there’s a bit more to Hugo than what’s being detailed here. One thread in particular, which revolves around the station’s inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his nervous love for the station’s flower girl (Emily Mortimer), is a charming subplot that only increases the film’s grand flourishes.
But for all the heartwarming antics of the supporting characters, Hugo is undeniably about a boy trying to find his place in the world and his need to aid others in discovering the significance of their own lives. The latter is done through the arc of Papa Georges, a man who is revealed to be George Méliès, one of film’s first auteurs. It’s in his arc that we can see Scorsese’s love and knowledge for film, as he beautifully recreates the real films of Georges with affectionate detail. Lending a desolate soul to Georges is Ben Kingsley, whose performance is emotionally invasive. With his face worn and eyes weighed down by an unbearable sadness, he is a forgotten man who finds a glimmer of hope in a boy who has nothing. On that same wavelength is Asa Butterfield’s performance, which is unusually strong for a child actor. It certainly helps that his face, which has the “aww” factor of a puppy, has a set of blue eyes that are easy to wade through. Emotionally speaking, it’s hard not to feel for Hugo. With his role being relatively pathos based, it’s Moretz’s performance as Isabelle that renders much of the film’s humorous tidings. From an energy perspective, Moretz’s delivery in Hugo is not much different than her portrayal in Kick-Ass. The only difference is that literary references and large words replace gun play and verbal debauchery.
These aforementioned performances, although engaging and fun, pale in comparison to the work and wonder of Scorsese. One could argue this is Scorsese’s finest hour. He has crafted a film that works at its own pace and still maintains a high level of imagination and visual panache to entice kids and adults alike. I’d even go as far to say that Hugo respects its core audience (the kids) simply because it doesn’t shovel one-dimensional characters or silly sound effects down their throats. Sure, there may be a cartoonish chase here or there, but Scorsese has crafted a world that isn’t afraid to embrace magic or deliver a palpable fear. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when Howard Shore’s score acts as a contradiction: it’s both sweeping and intimate in its sound. As you can imagine, it also has a distinct Parisian sound which lends itself terrifically to Scorsese’s implementation of 3D. With the sound of an accordion in the score, nearly acting as a bit of diegetic sound, and the immersive feel of the Parisian train station, it’s almost as if we’re there and can smell a fresh batch of baguettes coming out of the oven. I truly can’t express enough how fantastic Hugo is as a film and an experience. Undoubtedly magical and wholly emotional, Scorsese has made a film that speaks volumes about the wonder of life and the significance of films; two entities that bleed into one another.