The titular character of this Martin Scorsese film is an orphan who lives in a Paris train station. Once the son of an experienced clockmaker, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) spends most of his time roaming the station, and repairing an automaton that his late father found in a museum. One day, he is caught stealing from a toy store, whose owner is later revealed to be the French filmmaker, Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley). When he makes friends with Melies’ goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), they embark on a path, where they try to discover more about Melies’ history, and learn about the magic of cinema.
Hugo feels like a very personal outing for Scorsese. The director has long been associated with a passion for film preservation, so it comes as no surprise, that this movie deals with the importance of remembering cinematic innovation. Some of the best sequences involve characters watching scenes from other films, and it would not shock me if Scorsese is commenting on the power of cinema, with his own entry into it. After all, Melies was a pioneer of special effects, and Scorsese uses quite a few of them here: most notably, 3-D. It is essentially a film about gadgets that employs gadgets.
The visuals here are highly impressive, with beautiful 3-D cinematography, and flawless art direction and costume design. In fact, for the first time ever, I cannot imagine the film being as enjoyable without its added dimension. This is something that truly has to be experienced either in the theater, or at home with a 3-D television (preferably the former). It is a stunning delight, watching Hugo navigate the labyrinthine maze of a train station, as he attempts to stay out of the reaches of the orphan-catching Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen). Visually, the movie fits in perfectly with its story about creativity and craft, two things that clearly went into the making of this. One jaw-dropping sequence involves a montage of several silent films, including ones by legends Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Scorsese effectively shows why these relics remain enchanting, by letting the the images speak for themselves.
Admittedly, a few of the characters could have been stronger. Butterfield and Moretz do their best, but do not bring much to the “so-so” screenplay. Many situations and character moments feel contrived, taking away from some of the genuine emotion buried in the story. I say “emotion,” referring to the excellent performance by Kingsley. The best parts of the film are not ones that feature its namesake; rather, a complex, worn down Melies steals the show here. Single-handedly, Kingsley makes up for most of the movie’s poor character choices, with his on-screen achievement.
Even with some acting and script choices that should say otherwise, this is an emotionally rich, and captivating experience. The fact that Scorsese uses the power of film to make a powerful film, is commendable in its own right, and proves that the director is still on top of his game. When people in 1902 watched the spaceship from Melies’ movie, crash into the Moon, they probably smiled. After finishing Scorsese’s Hugo in 2011, I definitely did.