Machines have no extra parts. Every individual piece has a purpose, no matter how big or small. If the world itself is a grand machine of existence, what is your purpose? An interesting question posed within Martin Scorsese’s new film Hugo, which becomes its major theme. Beginning with a beautiful match-cut between the inside of a clockwork machine and the streets of Paris, Hugo pontificates that everyone has a purpose, and if not, they are broken and must simply be fixed.
Hugo tells the story of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a young orphan who lives in a large train station in the middle Paris. He meticulously maintains the many clocks throughout the station (a duty abandoned upon Hugo by his alcoholic uncle) and frequently steals pieces of machinery from a small toy store in an effort to rebuild the Automoton, a broken machine man found by his deceased father. Hugo is caught by the toymaker (Ben Kingsley) and forced to work for him to repay his debt. In doing so he meets Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), the toymakers goddaughter, and the two grow close as Isabelle helps with the Automoton and Hugo introduces Isabelle to his great passion: the movies.
That’s right, underneath all the simple charm and lighthearted wit; Hugo is all about the cinema itself. Yet it is not simply about film history, or the inner working of filmmaking, or even the importance of filmmaking to our culture. It is about filmmaking as work itself, and the effect of seeing a lifetime of work destroyed. A terrifying statistic states that 90% of all American silent films and 50% of American sound films made before 1950 have been lost… destroyed, gone, never to be seen again. Hugo shows the terrifying affect this had on early filmmaker George Melies, who made over 500 films in his career, nearly all of them lost now.
Hugo is a special film for director Martin Scorsese. Not simply because of the subject matter clearly close to his heart (Scorsese is the founder of the Film Foundation, a group dedicated to the preservation of film) but because it is both his first family-oriented film and his first 3D film. Much in the way Shutter Island had Scorsese showcasing the many tricks-of-the-trade he could utilize, Hugo has forced Scorsese to develop a completely new style to deal with the subject matter and 3D imagery. I’ve never been a fan of 3D, as it often confuses my eyes and makes many shots look confusing and jarring (particularly when the camera is focused on objects in the background, blurring everything in the foreground). This is the first time the 3D (as a whole) has not bothered me, particularly because Scorsese seems more interested in using the 3D to add depth to interesting images instead of dramatic effect. He also seems to be the first person to realize 3D is only effective with a wide depth of field, and Scorsese showcases this knowledge with numerous sweeping shots through the train station. There are definitely scenes where the 3D is unnecessary and becomes slightly obnoxious, but it’s worth it for the moments the 3D is meant for.
As is usual with a Scorsese film, all the performances are top notch. Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz give some of the best performances I’ve seen of any child actors. Butterfield handles the heavy emotion with great depth and sincerity, and Moretz is instantly lovable. Ben Kingsley gives a tragic performance as the toymaker, adding significant gravitas in the later scenes. Whereas Sacha Baron Cohen proves once again how versatile a performer he is as the troubled, handicapped station Inspector.
Hugo is one of those rare films that is incredibly enjoyable, addictively watchable, and undeniably personal. In a time where far too many people have been broken and can’t seem to be repaired, Hugo is a great reminder that sometimes all we need is a little bit of help.
Production Value: 9
Entertainment Value: 10