Hugo

Everything that’s magical about film can be traced back to French film pioneer Georges Melies.  He started out his career in the late 19th century as a magician, using his engineering genius to design tricks.  So when he encountered an early movie camera, he immediately saw the possibilities.  He was the first to use dissolves, multiple exposures and time lapse photography.  He made things disappear by stopping the camera, removing the object and then rolling again in what was called the “stop trick.”  He hand tinted whole sections of his films so they would be in color.  Not many of his efforts survive, they were melted down to make shoes during the first world war, but those that do, even though they are faded, grainy and mostly in black and white, still have the power to charm us.  He had that unique combination of technical wizardry and a sense of whimsy and wonder that translated onto the screen.  It is a DNA that runs through cinema history in the likes of Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, George Pal, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

                Which makes it somewhat odd that a hardcore realist like Martin Scorsese would want to make a movie version of Brian Selznick’s Caldecott award winning novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which has Melies as a character.  And yet Scorsese is nothing if not a cineaste with a deep love and knowledge of film history, even those parts of it that he would not seem to be descended from.  And frankly I’m not even sure I can say that anymore.  When he saw Avatar, he knew he wanted to make a 3D movie and one that would blow people’s socks off to boot.

                Georges Melies would have approved of the sentiment.

In 1930’s Paris, Hugo Cabret, played by Asa Butterfield is an orphan who lives in the walls of the Montparnasse train station in Paris.  He survives by stealing what he needs and makes recompense by keeping the station’s clocks working.  Hugo’s father, played by Jude Law, who recently died in a fire, was a clockmaker and a part time museum curator, which is where he’d found a mysterious automaton.  He showed the robot to Hugo and made several drawings of its inner workings in a notebook.  Both he and Hugo become obsessed with getting it working and discovering its secrets.    When the notebook falls into the hands of an aging embittered Georges Melies, played by Ben Kingsley, who is running a toy shop in the train station, Hugo must get it back with the help of Isabelle, played by Chloe Grace Moretz.  Isabelle is  Melies’s goddaughter, who is also an orphan and therefore living with Melies and his wife Jeanne, played by Helen McCrory.   And Hugo must accomplish all this while being chased by the station inspector, played by Sacha Baron Cohen.

                The most notable thing about this wonderful film is the look of it.  From the meticulously designed costumes to the sumptuous color soaked cinematography every frame is beautiful.  The sets are done in a style that can only be described as cluttered but clean.  It’s like looking at a really high level children’s book illustration, the kind you can get lost in for hours.

                The performances are good as well, especially the two child actors in the leads.  Asa Butterfield plays the waifish Hugo with vulnerability but also with a spine that allows him to survive in his strange circumstances.  He also captures the character’s intelligence, the knowledge and knack he received from his father to fix mechanical things.

                Ben Kingsley delivers his usual superb performance, playing a formerly idealistic and whimsical man fallen onto hard times and into bitterness.  Chloe Grace Moretz is building a resume of great performances.  Helen McCrory portrays Melies’s wife, defending his secret with all her strength while trying to get him to see that it is folly to keep it.  Sacha Baron Cohen brings depth to the character of the station inspector, who could have easily been a one dimensional villain. 

                The theme of the story is that everyone has a place and a purpose and those who don’t know that purpose are broken and need to be fixed.  There’s very little ambiguity about this as the main character says as much and the opening shot of the Paris skyline dissolves into the inner workings of a clock, a perfect visual metaphor for the theme.  This is a children’s film after all.  So the plot is filled with coincidences and intricate plot threads that all contribute to the main plot as well as advancing themselves.  Scorsese and the screenwriter John Logan handle this complexity well, although I suspect that the book has even more of this.

                What you get in the end is pure movie magic.

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1 Response to “Hugo”


  1. 1 theotherebert April 20, 2013 at 2:41 pm

    Comments are comments. My policy is to approve everything that isn’t outright spam or trolling. Of course I don’t reply to everything either.
    I don’t really contribute to other sites, since I want to save my literary energy for my fiction writing. I’ve had a couple of stories published so far, but none available online. I’ve never posted anything on my Twitter account and don’t intend to and I only post to my Facebook account to let friends and family know that I have a new review up here. I’m pretty old and my understanding of how networking works on the Internet is tenuous at best.
    Thank you for the interest though.


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