Martin Scorsese’s Hugo might be the single sweetest movie he has ever made. In a world where various special interest factions – conservatives, hippies, whomever – complain about the filth and chum in Hollywood, too often family entertainment is merely content with being innocuous and uninterested with actually being worth seeing. Obviously, Pixar has made a great living providing that combination of quality and wholesomeness, thus sticking out like a sore thumb in this entertainment wasteland – while by contrast this has not been Scorsese’s usual beat. That said, this is the greatest living American filmmaker we are talking about – so that he accomplishes so much when he puts his stamp on a family film and special effects fantasy, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan living in Paris of the 1930s, helping fix and run the clocks at the train station that his uncle is in charge of. His father, seen in flashback and rather incredibly resembling Jude Law (just Jude Law as someone’s dad – come on now), also had the fixing stuff bug, and prior to his death was working on reviving an automaton he had got from a museum. Since his father’s death, Hugo has evaded being sent to an orphanage – in particular by the dogged Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) – by living in the walls and sneaking about. Hugo subsists by stealing, and by the movies.
The train station, and Scorsese’s Paris is a masterwork of the imagination. The film filters and the way it is shot – this is not an animated film and these are actual actors, but somehow the filming has a certain heightened reality more akin to a movie like The Polar Express. Into this hyperreality, Scorsese peoples his Paris with characters such as the aforementioned Inspector, the shopkeeper Lisette (Emily Mortimer), and the grumpy guy Georges Meiles who runs the toy store (Ben Kingsley). Meiles in particular makes things difficult for Hugo as he puts Hugo to work fixing stuff at his store.
Meiles is a grumpy guy, but not one without a heart. He and his wife have taken in their goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), and when Hugo meets Isabelle, she shows him the wonder of the library while he shows her the wonder of movies. Little does Hugo know of course, that Georges Meiles (both here and the real one) is one of the earliest directors of cinema – you have probably seen is silent short about a trip the moon. And indeed there are secrets abound which bind these characters together – as the movie evolves from a wondrous fantasy into a celebration of the very building blocks of movies themselves.
I would not dream of spoiling the plot much further aside from pointing out how carefully Scorsese reveals the extent of the Kingsley character’s complexity, and how particular Scorsese and Cohen are with the Inspector. He is not a villain in any sort of way – just a guy with a particular sense of order. He thinks he is doing the orphans a favor. What we get at the end of the day is one of Scorsese’s very best films right at the time when we might not have been expecting one. I was surprised how affected I was by the ending, when some justice and redemption are handed out. Will kids like this plot, especially as it gets into the cinema part? I don’t know – I’d think so, but to paraphrase Cohen when he was promoting this film, Scorsese is not one who is focus testing these movies. He continues to be among the rare directors who is trying to dare greatness every time out.