Recently I had a conversation with a friend who noted that his enjoyment level with a film is often influenced by those he’s attending said film with. If his fellow moviegoers are having a good time, he’s more inclined to follow suit; if they’re less than enthusiastic, so is he. I haven’t found that to be the case for me personally, except when it comes to comedies; I’m probably more inclined to laugh hysterically when my cohorts are doing the same. I guess the whole “laughter is contagious” thing is true. But otherwise, I pretty much go my own way and my level of enjoyment is based on my personal experience. However, there have been times when I’ve had a moment of realization wherein I suddenly become aware that no one else in the theater is as into whatever we’re watching as I am. So it is with Hugo. While I became more and more enamored with Martin Scorsese’s beautifully crafted ode to film, it became abundantly clear that my friends and the rest of the audience were less than impressed. In some ways, this general disinterest from those around me may have made my appreciation for Hugo even deeper; I almost felt I needed to get up in front of the crowd and defend the film and point out its many merits. Since I did not deliver my speech at that time, I’m afraid we’re going to have to cover it in this space.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) has lived an unfortunate life. When his father (Jude Law) dies in a fire, he is snatched up by his uncle Claude(Ray Winstone), a drunkard who forces him to quit school in order to take up a job repairing the clocks within the Paris train station (and thereby allowing Claude to spend his time at the bottom of a bottle). After Claude disappears, Hugo finds himself living all alone within the walls of the depot, always mindful of staying out of the sight of the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). In his limited spare time, Hugo uses the skills his superior mechanical skills working on the repair of an automaton his father found in a museum attic shortly before his death, a machine he believes will deliver a message from his father. To make it work, Hugo begins stealing gears and parts from a small store and soon draws the ire of its proprietor, Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley). Georges allows him to work off his debt by repairing things in the shop and soon this job leads to a friendship with Georges’ goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who happens to own a key that fits the automaton perfectly. But instead of a message from his father, the automaton draws a picture that traces back to Georges and leads Hugo and Isabelle on a journey of great discovery.
To boil the plentiful elements and concepts contained within Hugo into a few paragraphs is a tough task. It is a tremendously complex film with a wide range of plots and purposes that don’t always interact in the most straightforward way. It is all at once a poignant family film, a coming of age film, an adventure epic, and an extremely personal homage. The mix of genres is a strong indicator as to why Hugo is having such a hard time finding an audience. Its rating and the inclusion of the 3D component make it an obvious draw for families but the truth is, this is not a film kiddos are going to enjoy. (Case in point: the young boy sitting behind me who spent the entire second half of the film telling his mother in a not-so-quiet voice that he wanted to go home.) This is the rare “children’s movie” that’s actually made for adults, designed to make us remember how magical everything could be when we were younger. So, basically, Scorsese’s take on a family movie.
Hugo is a deep and nuanced film that draws you in a little more with each passing scene. It starts slow (too slow, honestly) but builds consistently to the climax that, for me at least, delivered tenfold on the promises made throughout the runtime. As the movie progresses, Scorsese seems to be asking the audience to invest in Hugo’s struggles, a call to action I had no problem responding to. Butterfield provides a quality performance that peaks at the right times and his relative lack of experience is tempered quite well by Moretz, who always displays a maturity beyond her years. Their dynamic works well and Scorsese does an excellent job of relying on his young stars just enough to draw the audience’s attention but not so much as to put too much pressure upon them. The supporting actors, particularly Kingsley and Michael Stuhlbarg, all play their parts with subtle flair and each does a great job of highlighting the main characters. The surrounding storylines, while a bit distracting in the early going, come together with precision to expand the film’s narrative and
But where Hugo truly excels is when it delves into the world of the early cinema. A forgotten filmmaker, Georges has retreated within himself and locked away the many painful memories that came from his post-war exile. It falls to Hugo and Isabelle, along with the help of a film expert (played exquisitely by Stuhlbarg) to reawaken Georges’ love of film. Scorsese uses this piece of storytelling to unveil his own admiration for the early films and the further he takes Hugo into this realm, the more enamored with his work I became. It is a supremely well-made, beautifully shot film (as all Scorsese films are) that is nearly overpowering in its personal nature. You get the impression that Scorsese loves this film and wants you to love it as well. I only wish more viewers would join me in reciprocating that love.