‘Hugo’ is a movie about the movies

Contrary to this film still, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) has safety last on his mind.

Just when IMDb posters thought director Martin Scorsese was going to sell himself out to commercial family fare, he gives the world merely a fragment of his childlike wonder, passion, and giddiness for the cinema. I would think his love for the movies cannot be contained in merely one movie, but Hugo tries to express it in a nutshell. And it’s an incredibly well-done nutshell, to say the least.

While the trailers for Hugo focused on its young heroes to appeal to young children, Hugo is something more. It’s a film that celebrates early film history, a history that film lovers could never have done without. Without innovative filmmakers of the past, we wouldn’t have the movies we have now. Those filmmakers were visionaries and in result, inspired generations to create and, well, dream.

This is Scorsese’s love and gratitude letter to early cinema. Namely, George Méliès.

Hugo takes place in a very exciting, well-executed 1930s Paris. As much as we would all like to ponder why everyone is British in Paris, that’s far from the point.

Young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan who is in charge of all clocks at the busy Parisian train station and spends much of his time hiding from the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who takes great satisfaction in sending orphans to orphanages. However, his fascination with the automaton that his late father left him leads him to the toy shop owner, George Méliès (Ben Kingsley), and his goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz).

The film has no true villains, only characters who must seek a purpose.

I’m not familiar with the work of Méliès or even early cinema, to be completely honest, but this film provides a fantastic film history lesson, even better than the high school film class I took during senior year. And it’s an entertaining history lesson.

Which makes me wonder how much children would enjoy learning about the advent of filmmaking. I’m curious as to how children would react to this film because I feel like it’s actually a film lesson disguised as typical family fare. Unless I’m underestimating the intellectual curiosity of today’s children. The trailers made it look like they were just going to make some robot work and that robot will save the world or something. I don’t know, I was just surprised that Hugo turned out to be so much of a reflection Scorsese’s own lifelong interest in film.

Not that I ever expected anything less…

It’s just amazing how Scorsese is able to inject so much in himself in a film that, on paper, seems to have little to do with him. Here’s a children’s film with none of Scorsese’s signature brutality. And it’s probably the film that speaks the most about Scorsese’s heart as a filmmaker. He’s always been a director who is never shy about his passion for filmmaking, never shy about being flashy. That tracking shot in GoodFellas? Yep. Méliès seems to be Scorsese’s dream subject–Méliès wanted to make all things possible: reality, fiction, dreams. But on film, it’s all magic.

I apologize for this turning into a Scorsese-fest, but it’s just inevitable sometimes. I wouldn’t have even cared about this film if Scorsese didn’t make it and I think I speak on behalf of the entire film criticism community.

Yet it’s hard to ignore that Hugo is just a beautiful film. The 3D is subtle, but not completely useless, considering I did enjoy some of the visuals. The cinematography is lovely, with that dreamlike shot of the Eiffel Tower overlooking the city. Many scenes nicely illustrating the busy life of the Parisian train station, making the appropriately chaotic backdrop for this film. The chase scenes between the inspector and Hugo are fun and exhilarating. The performances are likable, with Baron Cohen being a constant comedic relief as the relentless inspector.

Not to say the film is without flaws. While most Scorsese films are very well-paced, Hugo can be a bit slow at certain intervals and took a while to truly begin. The central conflict in this film is the secret that must be unveiled and as I waited, I got somewhat impatient. But the payoff is worthwhile.

So here’s to a fine film history lesson. It was quite an adventure.