En español | Boy, was I ever ready to hate Hugo! And could you blame me? The trailers promised a madcap romp through a vaguely identified Paris of the past, complete with a cute-faced youngster evading a comical cop who keeps bumping into things. Worse, it’s directed by Martin Scorsese, clearly slumming for a quick buck (I told myself), and absolutely, positively worst of all: It was in 3-D. I’d seen this movie before, it was on Nickelodeon, and it was going to be an awful long slog clocking in, horror of horrors, at more than two hours. I was loaded for bear, I tell you, as I settled into my seat.
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So, where did Scorsese go right? Absolutely everywhere. Hugo is a delicately wrought, alternately heartbreaking and exhilarating love letter to childhood, to imagination, to books, to Paris, to technology, and most profoundly of all to the movies—portrayed here as the defining, enduring accomplishment of 20th century culture, the mode by which, in one character’s words, “dreams can be brought to life.”
Blue-eyed, black-haired Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan living within the walls of a Paris train station, keeping the myriad clocks wound and on time in return for a ragged bed. It’s a grim life, but Hugo loves machines. He loves to tinker with them, and in a miraculous way it’s his fascination with all things geared and spring-driven that pushes him into a cautious relationship with a train station toy merchant (Ben Kingsley), who turns out to be none other than the film director Georges Méliès, by the time of our story a long-forgotten figure. It’s here that the fiction of Hugo and real-life history become delightfully entangled: Méliès was the genius who, at the turn of the last century, revolutionized film storytelling with his elaborate fantasies, including Voyage to the Moon, which we all know as the film in which a rocket ship smashes into the Man in the Moon’s eye. Méliès did, indeed, end up selling toys in a Paris train station, but here, drawing from Brian Selznick’s lovely novel, Scorsese rewards the old man with a fittingly poignant curtain call, thanks to the heroics of the film’s titular child.
To enumerate the wonders, visual and emotional, of Hugo would be to spoil its many charms. That old-timey Paris we glimpsed earlier (circa 1931, as it turns out), is meticulously rendered, right down to its millions of hot incandescent light bulbs. That chase scene that comprises virtually the entire trailer is mercifully short (although it is, to be honest, the weakest sequence in the film), and that policeman, played with surprising nuance by Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat), turns out to have something of a touching story himself.
Best of all is Kingsley as Méliès—a man who has been so successful in forgetting his glorious past that he is now depriving himself of a present. Scorsese paints a tender, painfully delicate relationship between Méliès and his wife, played with delightful versatility by Helen McCrory, although I don’t suppose it would have killed Scorsese to award the sweet role to a more age-appropriate actress—McCrory, who portrayed Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter series, is 25 years Kingsley’s junior.
As much affection as he has for his characters, though, in Hugo Scorsese reserves his true passion for the movies, and for their history. He’s clearly taking great pleasure in relating the story of Méliès—witness the generous supply of clips he includes from the old master’s surviving films. And as much as he celebrates the past, with his wholehearted embrace of 3-D technology Scorsese also celebrates the movies’ future. In fact, here he’s using the expanded medium, more than any director I can think of (including James Cameron with his high-tech Avatar puppet show), to push film storytelling technique to new levels. Scorsese doesn’t simply imply depth by layering his images in a frame—he fills the space between them with floating dust, or changes of focus, to create a true sense of place. When the inevitable hand reaches out of the screen it’s not to startle us or remind us of a neat camera trick—it instead beckons us into the frame to partake in the characters’ experiences. Will we ever offhandedly refer to new releases as “deepscreen” movies? If more directors will attack 3-D with the artistic integrity Scorsese accomplishes here, we very well might.