Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to be amazed! Martin Scorsese's new film, Hugo, the 69-year-old director's first feature for children, is a kind of wonder machine that uses the latest movie technology to pay tribute to the early days of the movies, with their 19th-century roots in circuses and magic-show spectacles.
As well as an engaging fable about a homeless orphan living in a train station, Scorsese's film is a richly illustrated lesson in cinema history and the best argument for 3-D since James Cameron's Avatar.
Based on Brian Selznick's 2007 illustrated children's novel, the story takes place inside Paris's Montparnasse train station in 1931, where 12-year-old Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), the orphaned son of a clockmaker (Jude Law), lives inside the station's giant clock, which he also maintains since his dissolute uncle left him with the job.
An early scene takes us on a journey up inside that clock, with its ladders, crannies and moving apparatus. This gives us an introduction to Scorsese's use of 3-D as the entire screen opens up like a series of nesting boxes. Often, we see the world in motion from a child's metre-high perspective, but occasionally from heights, as Hugo looks down on the station through the number holes in the clock face.
Hugo dodges among the station's merchants and passengers (famous Montparnasse residents from James Joyce to Django Reinhardt are seen in cameo), steals food from the café in the station, which is depicted as a kind of indoor village. It is overseen by an orphan-hating inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), fitted with a metal leg brace from a war injury and accompanied by his Doberman pinscher, Maximilian.
Among the shopkeepers is a testy old gent with a name that should ring a bell with film buffs, Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). Méliès runs a toy shop, where Hugo pilfers parts for his secret project, repairing an automaton, or clockwork robot, which was bequeathed to him by his late father.
The old man catches Hugo one day and confiscates the boy's notebook, also a legacy from his father. When Hugo attempts to retrieve it, he meets the old man's bookish god-daughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz).
The tragic-eyed Butterfield and the luminous Moretz make an endearingly mature young couple, seeking friendship and adventure. Isabelle has never been allowed to see movies so Hugo decides to fix that and sneaks her into a showing of the film, Safety Last!, famous for its scene of Harold Lloyd dangling from a giant clock face.
Naturally, she is enraptured. Hugo also takes her to his own secret home in a clock, where, he realizes, the heart-shaped key she wears around her neck may be the final part he needs for his automaton.
In contrast to Cameron's Avatar, set in the layered purple and green rainforest, Scorsese's film loves technology and he uses the depth effects to show the density of built environments and the intricacy of the kind of machines that make movie-going possible.
One passing moment shows us perhaps the most famous moment in film-going history, the screening of the Lumière brothers' Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. We see the early film audience thrown into panic as a filmed train appeared to be about to run them over. That image of the onrushing train is repeated with variations at different plot points in Hugo, but Scorsese's tribute here is not to documentary realism but to cinema magic.
Méliès, a one-time stage magician, made more than 500 films, most famously his 1902 fantasy, A Trip to the Moon, which is considered the forerunner of science-fiction and fantasy filmmaking.
And, yes, it's true that after his filmmaking career ended in 1912, he really did work at a toy kiosk in Montparnasse station before he was rediscovered by a new generation of cinema lovers. Here, they're represented by Hugo and Isabelle, who, with the assistance of a film historian (Michael Stuhlbarg) help Méliès rediscover his stature and sense of purpose in life.
Hugo doesn't always balance the twin tasks of children's story and homage all that efficiently; for a movie so concerned with clocks, it risks overstaying its welcome.
Yet, for anyone interested in the history of cinema as a kind of waking dream, Scorsese's film fable is essential viewing – a beautiful piece of craftsmanship all around, from Robert Richardson's cinematography, Dante Ferretti's production design, Thelma Schoonmaker's editing and Howard Shore's stirring orchestral score.
The film is also a treasure trove of delightful silent movie clips from Méliès own work, where we see the roots of the filmmaking that has dominated movies since the seventies – the movies of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson – and the luxuriously romantic side of Scorsese's own work, where he wants audiences to become lost in the screen.
- Directed by Martin Scorsese
- Written by John Logan
- Starring Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Chloë Grace Moretz and Sacha Baron Cohen
- Classification: PG