It is undisputed that critics and film buffs from all over mostly agree that Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest and most influential living film directors in the world. In a career spanning over four decades now, beginning with his 1968 debut “Who’s That Knocking At My Door,” Scorsese has contributed possibly the highest number of cinematic classics and treasures of any other director. “Mean Streets,” “Raging Bull,” “The King Of Comedy,” “Goodfellas,” “The Departed,” “Gangs Of New York,” and my personal favorite, “Taxi Driver,” just to name a few of them. His films are often noted for their grittiness, socially outcast characters, violence and challenging viewpoints on morality.
So just like everybody else, I was a little surprised when I heard that his next film would be a 3D family adventure film based on the bestselling novel The Invention Of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. To me, it sounded as screwy as when George Miller switched from directing the “Mad Max” movies to family films such as “Babe” and “Happy Feet.” And while “Hugo” is quite distinctive from the rest of the entries in the director’s prolific career, it still remains a work of genius.
“Hugo” is set in Paris, France during the 1930s. The title character Hugo (Asa Butterfield, who some might remember from the Holocaust drama “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas”) is a young orphan boy who lives and works inside of the maze-like network of clocks in a large train station that, at just the right angle, overlooks the magnificent Eiffel Tower. The boy has an incredible mechanical expertise and a gift for invention.
His extensive knowledge of such things came from his father, a genius clockmaker briefly played by Jude Law, who schooled him in the ways of engineering, machinery and turning imagination into reality. As the boy got older, the father showed great interest in automatons, or mechanical humanoids that are built for an intended use, and he even possessed a broken one that he experimented on in hopes of fixing it. Unfortunately, he was never able to repair his two-foot-tall metallic man back to working condition, as he suffered a premature death due to a large conflagration at a museum.
Hugo is then unofficially handed over to a distant uncle (Ray Winstone) who places him in the train station, where he is educated on how to operate the giant clocks and is otherwise left alone to fend for himself. He spends his days ambling back and forth between different clocks, stealing food from the train station services, avoiding capture from the bumbling station guard Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), and occasionally swiping gears and parts from a furtive old man’s (Ben Kingsley) toy shop.
Eventually, he becomes good friends with a verbose girl around his age named Isabelle (Chloë Moretz), who is also the toyshop owner’s goddaughter and an enthusiastic bibliophile. One day, the old man catches Hugo stealing the spare parts from a wind-up mouse toy and he snatches the lad’s notebook full of designs and engineering notes for his father’s automaton. He threatens to destroy the notebook in a fire when he gets home. But Hugo and Isabelle, being the inquisitive little scamps that they are, are compelled to investigate whether or not the given state of affairs are more than what they seem.
The trailers and television commercials have given away little about the film and the secrets that lie beyond the basics, which is odd, considering they give away too much about a film on four out of every five occasions. Well, I will be kind and not spoil anymore plot points and important information for readers, because this is truly a film worth seeing. Just one of the many reasons why is for the visuals, whose wintry sense of hyper-realism is both gorgeous and dazzling. The vast glimpses of Paris have a special beauty and charm, the shades and hues are somehow both vibrant and grubby, and the low temperatures on the streets of Parisian practically seep through the screen and fill the auditorium with frostiness. It is like witnessing a live-action picture book unfolding right before your eyes.
“Hugo” begins as a compelling, Dickensian-style mystery drama with the two children embarking on their own detective adventure to put together the scattered pieces of a backbreaking puzzle, with questions relating to Hugo’s deceased father and the automaton he left behind. Thanks to Asa Butterfield and Chloë Moretz, who have an innocently downplayed chemistry, the long riddle is intriguing and nearly every new discovery is a surprise. Even when they are determined to get answers to their infinite questions, they still have time for the occasional excursion to the nearby cinema. Hugo introduces the book-smart Isabelle to motion pictures by sneaking her into the classic silent picture “Safety Last!,” in which Harold Lloyd helplessly dangles from the hands of a clocktower high above ground.
However, the second half of the film is something even greater as it reveals itself to be a film ABOUT film and the magical impact they have on the world. It is hard to imagine in this age of CGI explosions and millions of dollars in production values, but silent movies were once equally capable of thrilling audiences and taking them to worlds far, far away. There is a scene that tells of the first ever motion picture by the Lumiere brothers titled “Arrival Of A Train At La Ciotat,” in which it was quite literally just a train arriving at a station. It is said that the audience jumped and screamed in alarm as the train rushed into the foreground. Sounds something like the current trend of 3D, doesn’t it?
Ultimately, the film is Scorsese’s love letter to film. Being his art form of choice, he has a special appreciation for the one-of-a-kind effect that the cinema can have on everybody’s lives. The film chronicles the innovation of “true” movie studios where filmmakers could shoot extravagant projects, the idea of injecting color into the average black-and-white silent picture, and essentially the pioneering of special effects as we know it. On one hand, it is unbelievable that we now have the advanced technology to grant any preposterous action flick a sense of uncanny realism, but there is still admirable craftsmanship in the cheesy visual tricks seen in classic films. “Transformers” would simply not exist without them.
Scorsese even laced in a message involving film preservation that will likely slip under the radar of the average moviegoer’s attention, although I may just be trivializing people’s abilities to read between the lines. I have seen the director tirelessly champion this cause on several occasions, specifically in ads for The Film Foundation in which he talks about the phenomenal restoration of a film that left an impression on his childhood, “The Red Shoes.” And he is right to speak out for such a foundation. In a staggering statistic, something like eighty percent of all films made prior to 1930 have been lost forever, due in part to the highly combustible composition of film during that time. For fellow supporters of film preservation, there is a potentially cringe-inducing scene where a number of important film documents are melted down and molded to create heels on women’s shoes.
“Hugo” is the kind of great work of art that could have only been done by a great artist, and how many filmmakers exhibit the kind of artistry that Martin Scorsese is so known for? Though even as I praise it, I continue to wonder just how well the film will perform amongst younger kids, teenagers and families who might expect to be in for something a bit more enchanting and glitzy in the vein of “Sherlock Holmes” or maybe “Harry Potter.” But if general audiences aren’t able to step back for a moment and absorb the wonders of an elegant and well-made film that might also educate and provoke thought, they may never know where the true magic comes from.