After embarking on their own little adventure, Isabelle and Hugo learn that Papa Georges is actually legendary film pioneer Georges Meilies, a magician and technical whiz who also designed Hugo’s automaton. Georges is clearly nursing a great deal of pain and wounded pride thanks to his slide into obscurity. From here the focus of the story turns to the cause of his downfall as well as to the very birth of cinema itself.
Scorsese himself is renowned for having an intense passion for forgotten cinema. A prime example of which was his considerable contribution in helping get Powell and Pressburgers’s The Red Shoes restored in 2009, an oft overlooked film which the director fell in love with and wanted to share with the world. In Hugo it’s another private passion of the director, early silent cinema and the origins of film itself which takes centre stage. There are actual clips from several of Melies’ pioneering early works throughout the film including the legendary A Trip to the Moon dating right back to 1902. We also see Melies mesmerised by the Lumier brothers ‘Arrival of a Train at Ciotat Station’ one of the earliest recorded examples of moving pictures. It was this event which sparked off Melies’s interest in film and thanks to his career as an illusionist he had the perfect grounding for creating magic from behind the camera.
Scorsese also has Hugo and Isabelle take a trip to the cinema to see Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last, a landmark silent movie which has the two kids transfixed. The wonderment and joy experienced by Georges, Hugo and Isabelle at these early silent movies is precisely what Scorsese wants to convey. He wants to put the magic back into the movies. The desire the two kids show to not only restore the broken automaton but also to restore Georges Melies’ forgotten reputation, is also clearly symbolic of Scorsese’s own desire to keep the history of film alive.
Visually speaking, Hugo is absolutely superb. The beautiful Parisian cityscape is breathtaking and the station itself, where so much of the action takes place, is meticulously designed right down to the smallest detail. More importantly though, the use of 3D is absolutely spot on. When Avatar came along and showcased what 3D could bring to a film, many expected a slew of similarly painstakingly produced movies. Unfortunately, what followed was instead a series of cheap imitators with retro-fitted 3D simply added on in post production. With Hugo however, Scorsese took great time to shoot the movie in 3D and most importantly to really make sure it added something to the finished article.
While Avatar was a boring film with impressive 3D, Hugo is a good film with impressive 3D to boot. The opening shot where the camera zooms into the train station and gradually hones in on Hugo crouched inside one of the clocks is an absolute triumph. Half way through the film and the great depth of detail we see at the station, the plumes of smoke and the bustling crowds, are almost in danger of being taken for granted. This extra level of detail however is only possible thanks to the excellent use of 3D and great credit must be given to the director for his expert utilisation of a technology which is still struggling to make an impact. I for one am still not sold on 3D, but a few more movies like Hugo and I may begin to warm to it ever so slightly.
The two child leads are both strong, with Asa Butterfield particularly impressive as the lonely but hopeful young hero. Ben Kingsley is perfect as the world weary Melies and Helen McCrory does sterling work as his caring wife Mama Jeanne. There are however a number of supporting characters who don’t seem to have any particular role to play in the film. The elderly couple who finally bond over dogs seem utterly irrelevant and Christopher Lee’s bookstore owner also appears a little superfluous. Sacha Baron Cohen’s character was a touch on the OTT irritating side at times and a late bit of character development felt a little undercooked. Luckily though, despite these minor gripes, the lead actors carry the film brilliantly.
As I mentioned previously, the plot switches from a story about a boy searching for a way to reconnect with his father, to one about a boy and a girl seeking to restore a forgotten master to his former glory. It’s here perhaps where some of the younger kids watching may get a little restless. The scenes of Melies in his pre-war studio creating magic is intriguing for anybody with an interest in the history of film but will perhaps not appeal quite as much to the younger audience.
Overall though the film is charming, entertaining and visually striking. It was clearly a labour of love for Scorsese and the time and effort he put into making sure it was just right is there for all to see up on the screen. There’s really something for all ages to enjoy here and it is undoubtedly one of the finest family films in quite some time.