Review: Scorsese’s wonderful, thoughtful film ‘Hugo’ is his tribute to the intimate relationship between cinematic dreams and their dreamers, and how the magic of filmmaking, so easily believed by children, is, in a psychological sense, actually real. Movies are not primarily about what is seen — the plot, characters, setting, and action — but a way of seeing. Cinematic vision can transform mundanity into magic, magic into mundanity, violence into beauty, or beauty into violence — and that’s just scratching the surface. It’s why Kubrick, Malick or Spielberg can hold on one simple image and change it into a microcosm of creation’s majesty, while in another film, through less imaginative eyes, the simple image would be glossed over, and the insight lost. Great directors like Martin Scorsese stand above their peers because they succeed in creating unified, articulate expressions of their unconscious minds, in essence giving life to their dreams. We go to the movies, whether we realize it or not, to live in a filmmaker’s mind and to let it shape our own. This is why recognizing creative forces is such a big part of responsible movie-going; whose dreams have you been having, lately?
Like the source material, Brian Selznick’s gorgeously illustrated book ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’, Scorsese’s film is a fictionalized account of how filmmaking pioneer George Méliès was rediscovered by French cinema enthusiasts in the 1920s and ’30s. Audiences are given a way in through the title character, an orphan named Hugo, who keeps the clocks running in a Paris train station and tries to fix the mysterious, intricate automaton left by his dead father. The brilliant thing about letting this talented, intelligent and vulnerable boy shape the narrative is that it helps today’s cynical audiences connect with Méliès’ strange world, while simultaneously providing a sympathetic story that demands resolution. Scorsese’s love of cinema, and his emulation of it, is mirrored in Hugo. Hugo takes his friend Isabelle to see silent comedian Harold Lloyd’s ‘Safety Last‘, and the delight on their faces is worth the price of admission. Though Hugo doesn’t yet suspect it, a filmmaker works in the train station as a toymaker; a sad, elderly man who Hugo observes with fascination. Hugo, and the audience, do not yet know that the toymaker is in fact Méliès, but we sense the man’s painful loss immediately. The toymaker/magician is incomplete, because his films — his dreams, in fact — are gone. It’s up to Hugo to reconnect the filmmaker with his lost work, and in the process to solve the mystery of the automaton.
‘Hugo’ is a film populated by broken characters. Like the automaton, they are missing the pieces that would allow them to act according to their design, and each of them, incomplete, cannot connect with those they care for. It’s a simple but beautiful rationalization of life, and rightfully, the film lets young Hugo and Isabelle articulate it for us. Like many children’s films, ‘Hugo’ expresses its morals through its youngest characters, but unlike a typical genre entry, it carefully shows us not just why, but how these morals are practical. Each character contributes to the stream of plot, and as the protagonist, Hugo is kind enough to open the dam and let it resolve itself. Until the final thirty minutes, the film progresses slowly; it takes its time to flesh out the train station and its peculiar denizens, in particular the comically awful Station Inspector, played to perfection by Sacha Baron Cohen. Lanky, awkward, and by turns pathetic and menacing, the Station Inspector makes a terrifically pitiable villain, a guy we’d like to see get his comeuppance and fall in love at the end of the day. Méliès, meanwhile, begins as a minor, though sympathetic, villain, and ends as a playful sorcerer and loving father. Hugo confronts the Station Inspector and the filmmaker, and his actions, like those of a skilled tinkerer, realign their hearts with their dreams. Méliès’ cinematic magic, in turn, fixes Hugo, demonstrating the truth of cinema and the real power a director has over a willing human soul.
On the technical side of the equation, director of photography Robert Richardson’s 3D cinematography is so rich that it competes with James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’. While Cameron’s film illuminated the beauty of nature, Scorsese’s collaboration with Richardson renders clockwork machinery glorious. This makes for a rare occasion in which I will actually recommend that you experience ‘Hugo’ with the third dimension; just make an effort to find a theater with very bright projection to offset those tinted glasses. Even without 3D, the color palette and composition in ‘Hugo’ is striking, so if you can’t find a showing with bright projection, go 2D.
For more on ‘Hugo’, I recommend the following articles: Kristin Thompson’s historical analysis of the film, which doubles as a review; Matthias Stork’s take; and Richard Brody’s thoughts at the New Yorker.
Also, you can find many of Méliès’ films on YouTube. Here’s a good one to start with: A Trip to the Moon.