I’m having a hard time collecting my thoughts about Hugo because I’m not sure how to write about it definitively yet. My thoughts are still percolating. I’d say that’s a good sign. I’ve seen plenty of movies this year that I forgot about the moment I stepped out of the theater. That’s far from my problem in describing Hugo. My problem in describing Hugo is in deciding whether or not I should use the term “masterpiece.”
It’s certainly a masterwork, in that it’s the picture of professionalism, all immaculate composition and delirious craftsmanship. But would I be too eager in calling it a masterpiece, as in “a film that will endure and come to be acknowledged as a classic”? I mean, we’re talking about Martin Scorsese here. It’s not like he hasn’t made a couple masterpieces already. But I also know that I can get overly enthusiastic. So maybe I’ll keep this short, and come back to it some day soon.
The story centers around a boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield, terrific), who is raised by a single father (Jude Law, in a brief role) to be a builder and fixer of clocks in the city of Paris. When Hugo loses his father, he is taken in by his brute of an uncle (Ray Winstone, in an even more brief role) to help run the clocks in the central train station. The uncle wanders off in a drunken stupor, leaving Hugo alone to keep the clocks running. A nasty security guard (Sacha Baron Cohen, a precision instrument of comedy) patrols the station, scooping up unattended minors to ship off to the orphanage, and Hugo spends his days avoiding this creep, literally living in the walls. Hugo has exactly one artifact to remind him of his beloved father — an “automaton”, basically a small robot that waits, poised, to write a message with pen and paper, which Hugo diligently labors to activate. Events put Hugo in the path of a girl (Chloe Grace Moretz, the talented young actor from Let Me In) and her guardian, an embittered toy maker (Ben Kingsley), who literally hold the key to making the automaton work and getting it to reveal its secrets.
There are other wonderful characters populating the station and the film, such as a portly gentleman who is continually harassed by a small dog (Richard Griffiths, in a great tribute to Oliver Hardy), a lovely flower girl (Emily Mortimer) who the patrolman loves from a distance, a friendly academic (Michael Stuhlbarg, initially unrecognizable from his turn in A Serious Man) who comes into play later in the story, and best of all, Msr. Labisse (Christopher Lee), the saintly owner of the station’s bookstore, who generously lends books to the kids just because they love to read so much. Christopher Lee, with that unearthly voice and unmistakable frame, haunts this movie in the best possible sense. As one of the living legends and literal icons of film — the words “legend” and “icon” are overused but this man eminently qualifies — he is like a human testament to the love of filmmaking which gilds every frame of this movie.
And that’s at heart what Hugo is about. Love, filmmaking, and the love of filmmaking. Scorsese’s famed encyclopedic knowledge of world cinema history abounds in total glory, from the aforementioned tribute to the slapstick tradition of Laurel & Hardy and others (Charlie Chaplin, Charley Chase) to the more overt references to Harold Lloyd, both in the movie and on the poster —
— from the design of the automaton which hearkens back to Metropolis, to the skeletal dancers in another scene which recall a similarly fleeting ominous omen from Renoir’s The Rules Of The Game, to Sacha Baron Cohen’s melange of influences including Jacques Tati and Inspector Clouseau, right up to the smorgasbord of silent films both real and imagined which bring the viewer back to the joy and the innocence and the freshness of the very early days of cinema, birthed by the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès and their compatriots. Scorsese’s joy is so palpable that he can’t help himself from hopping into the action and making his first director cameo in many years. And the joy is infectious. Between Robert Richardson’s cinematography, never more vibrant, and Dante Ferretti’s astonishingly meticulous production design, Hugo is a literal feast for the eyes.
More like dessert. “Eye candy” is another cliché, but it’s never been more relevant. Watching Hugo feels like someone coated your eyeballs in chocolate and gold. Its color palette is warm and accomodating, just plain wonderful to behold. Hugo has that excitement of those special occasions, maybe some long-ago Christmas dinner, where your parents let you have more candy than usual, more than even you think is enough. It’s both impressive and inspiring that, at a time when most artists might consider resting on their laurels, Scorsese has shot a movie entirely in a newer technology, 3-D, and surpassed all pretenders. This is without question the best-looking 3-D movie since Avatar, and this one has a much better story. My initial one-line review of Hugo is that “Scorsese found a way to turn film school into cinema.” Now I’m leaning towards referring to it as “Scorsese’s Watch The Throne.”
Would I quibble? No, actually, I don’t think I can! Not with the movie itself, but I do have slight concern about its marketing. I saw this movie without my four-year-old niece, who is normally my favorite companion for G-rated and PG-rated movies. She wants to see it, and I feel that eventually she will love it. But I don’t think she’s ready for a 3-D movie that lasts over two hours. Hugo may be too long for all but the most patient of children. I could be wrong. I’m hoping I am. It looks likely that I’ll be testing that prediction soon. I can tell you that I personally will gladly sign up for another screening. This time I’ll watch her smile as she watches the movie.
It’s great. Heed none but the most favorable reviews. Go, now, while it’s still playing in 3-D on the biggest screens possible.
Seriously. Get going. Or else I’m going to start back up writing more about it.
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