Movie Review – Hugo (2011)
by HELEN GEIB
A note on spoilers: The plot of Hugo revolves around the young hero’s discovery of another character’s true identity. It is impossible to write a meaningful review and not reveal the secret. If by some chance you don’t already know what it is, and you do already know you want to see the movie, bookmark this review and read it when you get back. Otherwise, read on.
Martin Scorsese’s latest is adapted from the young adult novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick. The recently orphaned Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives in a forgotten room inside the walls of the grand terminal of a Paris train station in the mid-1920s. His drunken uncle’s job was to keep the station’s numerous, splendid wall clocks running. When his uncle didn’t come home one night, Hugo took over his work.
He is befriended by a girl his age named Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), a bibliophile and fellow orphan who lives with her godparents “Mama Jeanne” and “Papa Georges” (Ben Kingsley); Papa Georges sells toys from a small storefront in the station. An automaton and a mysterious coincidence lead Hugo and Isabelle to an amazing discovery, that the embittered old man is in actuality Georges Melies, the great magician of early cinema and one of France’s greatest filmmakers.
The plot is inspired by the sad facts of Melies’ later life. Melies saw his once-hugely popular films fall out of favor with the public and his production company bankrupted on the eve of the World War. The negatives of many of his films were deliberately destroyed as chemical salvage (a sadly common fate for early films throughout Europe), and many others were lost to neglect and decay. The impoverished Melies did sell toys at the Montparnasse train station in Paris for a time, and late in life received financial aid from the Paris film society. More happily, the real man also took an interest in automatons.
The film overall, however, takes its inspiration from Melies’ days on top and from his art. There are lengthy reenactments, in flashbacks, of Melies’ surpassing colorful film company at work, as well as interpolated excerpts from Melies’ fantastical films, including his iconic A Trip to the Moon (1902).
Nor does the film limit itself to the pre-feature era. When Hugo and Isabelle sneak into a movie palace to see Safety Last (1923), you know an homage to the oft-reproduced image of Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock hand can’t be far behind. As they read a book of film history, we see a montage of snippets from famous films. The montage flashed by quickly but I believe I spotted Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Baghdad (1924), Charlie Chaplin in The Kid (1921), and Rudolph Valentino in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921); each of those movies is echoed by life in the train station. Hugo’s act of watching people who work in the station through apertures in the clock faces transforms subplots into short films within the film.
Scorsese is well known as a cinephile of the first rank and an advocate of film studies and preservation. It’s easy to see what attracted him to this project, but in the end he proves too perfect for the job. The film loses focus after the first act, losing sight of Hugo’s story in an over-produced infomercial for film preservation* and a mini-biopic of Georges Melies. Good pacing is the inevitable casualty. Clocking in at 127 minutes and with too many slack scenes, the film is noticeably overlong.
Despite appearances, it’s not really a film for children. It is entirely suitable for family viewing and should appeal to children of Hugo and Isabelle’s age, but Hugo is a movie for adults. It is steeped in adult nostalgia: for the first delights of discovery of books and movies; for the child’s capacity to be transported by a good story; for childish wonderment at magical places like the inside of an enormous clock.
This is a film of many lovely moments, to which the 3D contributes. It was filmed in 3D and is worth watching that way even if, like me, you generally dislike the process. (Thankfully, the silent film excerpts were not converted.) It’s interesting to consider the artistic significance of a 3D homage to early film. Melies was a technical innovator of the highest order, an enthusiastic pioneer in the use of special effects and hand-painted color prints. He would have loved 3D. On the other hand, he enchanted without it, and the spell then and always cast by his films is exactly Hugo‘s point.
*To readers inspired to support the cause: The National Film Preservation Foundation, which is affiliated with the Library of Congress, is a great place to start. You can donate directly or by purchasing one of the inestimable DVD sets in the “Treasures from American Archives” series.