Hugo is the ultimate kid's movie, in a sense, because its director, Martin Scorsese, turns out to be the ultimate kid. It's a movie about movies, and the ways in which they came to occupy people's hearts and minds. There's a pair of inquisitive children, a hazardous quest, and a wondrous treasure. But the child at the center of the story, looking back more than a hundred years to the wellspring of his art, is Scorsese himself.
The picture is based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a 2007 illustrated novel by Brian Selznick, to which Scorsese secured the film rights early on. As the movie begins—in Paris, in 1931, in meticulous 3D—we realize immediately that we're not about to sit through any run-of-the-mill PG kiddie flick. The camera plunges down from the sky into a grand train station (presumably the Gare Montparnasse), skitters along a crowded boarding platform and then through the station's bustling main hall and into its imposing clock tower, pulling us upward through a mechanical wonderland of ornate gears, levers, and elaborate whatnot. (It's a sequence that inevitably recalls the famous Copacabana entry in Scorsese's Goodfellas, much as a later runaway-train episode is reminiscent of the bravura plane-downing sequence in The Aviator.)
Living in a loft at the top of the clock tower is 13-year-old Hugo (Asa Butterfield), a clockmaker's son orphaned after the death of his father (Jude Law in flashbacks), and resentfully taken in by his alcoholic uncle (Ray Winstone), who's employed as winder of the station's clocks. Doubly orphaned after the uncle disappears, Hugo spends his days winding the clocks himself and assiduously repairing a rusty automaton—a child-size mechanical figure—that his late father had rescued from oblivion in a museum. To bring this complex oddity to "life," however, Hugo must eventually find a special key that fits into its locked mechanical heart.
In search of parts for the automaton, Hugo descends into the crowds of the station below—carefully eluding the notice of the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), an officious prig with a mechanical leg, whose pleasure it is to collar unattached children and ship them off to a dismal orphanage. Hugo's most rewarding source of clockwork parts is a station toy shop run by a cranky old man named Georges (Ben Kingsley). When he spots Hugo as a thief, and seizes the boy's notebook of intricate mechanical designs, Hugo follows him home. There he encounters Georges' goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Isabelle is an orphan herself, and she happens to be wearing, on a ribbon around her neck, exactly the sort of key Hugo has been seeking for his automaton. He tells Isabelle about his quest, and she's instantly intrigued. "This might be an adventure," she says. "And I've never had one before."
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Hugo is surprised to learn that she has never seen a movie before, either, so he sneaks her into a theatre that's showing Georges Méliès' watershed science-fiction classic, A Trip to the Moon. This scene has a particular glow, and we share Isabelle's vintage amazement at what she's watching.
Here, Scorsese undertakes a fond account of cinema's beginnings. We see Méliès—who started out as a stage illusionist—being inspired by the primitive documentaries of the Lumière brothers. (Scorsese vividly recreates the panicked reaction of an audience watching a train come barreling toward the camera in one of the Lumières' films.) Méliès builds his own studio in 1897, and pioneers the creation of narrative filmmaking. We see the hand-cranked cameras recording fire-breathing dragons and turbaned swordsmen, the ingenious effects (stop-camera vanishing illusions among them), and the director taking part as an actor as well. (Scorsese makes a fleeting appearance himself in one scene.)
We also learn that Méliès was thought to have been killed in the Great War, and that all but one of his more than 500 films appeared to have been destroyed (raising the now-vital issue of film-preservation, a cause famously close to Scorsese's heart). But then, in a magical sequence involving Hugo's automaton, finally coaxed into movement, we learn that Méliès lives—that he is actually Isabelle's godfather and guardian, Papa Georges.
The movie is a work of masterful craftsmanship on the part of Scorsese and such longtime collaborators as cinematographer Robert Richardson, production designer Dante Ferretti, set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, as well as composer Howard Shore, whose rich score burnishes virtually every scene. There are passing tributes to Buster Keaton (seen in a beautifully restored clip from The General) and Harold Lloyd (whose famous dangling stunt work in the 1923 Safety Last! is echoed in a scene featuring Hugo in peril high atop the station clock tower).
Despite its gorgeous execution, however, there has to be some question as to how much the movie's box-office receipts will exceed its spine-tingling budget (reported to be $170-million). The picture's momentum is retarded by unnecessary repetition (especially in scampering chases through the teeming train station) and possibly one too many fake-out dream awakenings. And while the actors are for the most part in top form—especially Kingsley and the ravishingly accomplished Moretz—Cohen's inspector verges on vaudeville cliché; and Butterfield, as handsome a camera subject as he may be, isn't yet expressive enough to hold the screen for more than two hours as Hugo.
Still, this is a movie filled with marvels, and is surely the director's most heartfelt work. At one point, Hugo explains to Isabelle that movies are "like seeing dreams in the middle of the day," a perfect simile. How inspiring it is to realize that Scorsese, now in his fifth decade of filmmaking, continues to dream.