HUGO. Starring Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ray Winstone, Jude Law and Christopher Lee. Directed by Martin Scorsese. 127 minutes. Rated PG (mild themes).
Fans wondered when they heard that Martin Scorsese was to direct a children’s film and in 3D. It didn’t seem like the material for the director of Taxi Driver, Mean Streets and The Departed. There is no need to be apprehensive, Scorsese has made one of his best films (and the vivid and sharp 3D photography works very well indeed).
So, the question is, who is Hugo? He is a boy, Hugo Cabret, from the novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick. And he is played by Asa Butterfield (from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas). He is surrounded by a fine British cast led by Ben Kingsley. And he teams up with the vivacious Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick Ass, Let Me In).
That is the who of the title. But, the interesting question is the where and when of the film.
The where is Paris and most of the action takes place in the railway station, Gare Montparnasse. Not only do we feel we have lived in the station, we know the regulars well, the vendors, the police, but we spend a great deal of time in the cavernous spaces behind the clocks of the station where Hugo lives. The film opens with a lengthy running sequence where we experience Hugo in the long corridors and vast rooms in an exciting 3D tour.
The when is the late 1920s, so the period is re-created with costumes and decor, quite sumptuous to look at – and to a stirring score as well.
The time is important because the film is also about the history of cinema, particularly French cinema and the early silent era. Scorsese is a cinema buff par excellence and he takes the opportunity to immerse his audience in the wonders of cinema and animation. Film buffs will really appreciate it. And, because, the central protagonists are children, it offers a wonderful opportunity to learn about cinema in the olden days.
There is a brief cameo by Jude Law as Hugo’s father, a man who loved tinkering with machines and novelties. He has rescued a complicated robotic machine and has been attempting to make it work, but a key is missing. After his father’s death, he is taken by his uncle (Ray Winstone) to work on the clocks in the station. One of the shops is owned by a crusty old man who accuses Hugo of stealing, setting the war veteran commissioner at the station (who interprets all rules rigidly) in pursuit of Hugo who can always escape behind the clocks and hide. Ben Kingsley is the shop owner and Sacha Baron Cohen the commissioner. There is a fine cameo from the elderly Christopher Lee as a bookseller.
This leads us to the films of Georges Melies, the French pioneer of animation, whose rocket to the moon short is well known (and was recently restored to its full colour (each frame hand painted at the time) which is featured at the end of Hugo). It is assumed that Melies died in World War I, but he did not. His many fantasy films went out of fashion with the hard edge of film reporting from the war, and Melies lost his money and studio and withdrew, rather embittered, to the shop at the station.
There is a warmth in the storytelling as Hugo becomes less defensive, where Melies re-discovers and visualises the story of his past and the wonderful experiences of studio filming with his wife, where the key to the robot is found and it begins to work and offers a message to Hugo from his father.
Because Scorsese has always made films for mature older audiences, he knows how to gear his children’s film to entertain and interest adults. Obviously, he hopes that children will identify with Hugo and share the wonder of the technical developments of the period and better appreciate where the films they take for granted came from and the genius of those pioneers like Melies.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out January 12, 2012.