It wasn’t that long ago we marveled over the adventures of another spritely orphan who launched out from another enchanted train station. But no amount of wand-waving and quasi-Latin recitation can top the magic in Martin Scorsese’s latest.
Harry, meet Hugo, on whom you’ve got nothing.
Leave it to Scorsese, so accomplished in cinematic bloodletting, to make something as cheerful, lustrous, and altogether wondrous as Hugo. The objective description of this film, you’ve probably heard, is incongruous with the 69-year-old director’s corpus: It’s adapted from a children’s novel. It’s rated PG. It’s presented in 3-D. (I’ll get to that later.)
Hugo comes from Brian Selznick’s 2007 book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, whose title character (Asa Butterfield) lives behind the walls of the Gare Montparnasse in Paris, circa 1931, where he and his father (Jude Law) tend to the station’s many impressive timepieces. But after his father dies, Hugo is alone—save a mostly absent alcoholic uncle (Ray Winstone)—in a vast train depot. All that’s left of Hugo’s father is a broken-down automaton he’d found in a museum rummage sale.
In fact, at the film’s beginning, Hugo’s closest living acquaintance is probably the station’s security guard (Sacha Baron Cohen), who with his bum leg chases Hugo around with a toy soldier’s gait. Luckily, one of these pursuits leads Hugo into Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her adoptive father Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), grumpy proprietor of the local toyshop. Hugo’s dreamlike Montparnasse also houses a bookstore, jazz café, and so many other amenities that when Isabelle promises Hugo an adventure that’s “Neverland, and Oz, and Treasure Island all wrapped into one,” she may as well be talking about the entire station beyond a few stacks of musty old tomes.
Isabelle lives for the written word. But Hugo, like Scorsese, is a devotee of the moving image, and when Papa Georges is revealed to be Georges Méliès, it’s the happiest accident and most inevitable result wrapped into one.
Hugo’s Méliès is not too far off from history’s. Like our own, this Méliès turned early filmmaking into fantastical dreamscapes with shorts like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and, most famously, A Voyage to the Moon, before succumbing to financial ruin and being forced to sell the prints of his nearly 500 short films, most of which were melted down and reconstituted as shoe heels. And just as the real Méliès did, this one wound up a toymaker in a train station.
But Scorsese isn’t just content to show us montages—and they are great montages—of restored clips. He’s reconstructed Méliès old stage', a glass house where dreams are forged and visual miracles discovered. Scorsese’s palate in these sequences is as colorful as the richest Kandinsky, almost startling to see from a director who has spent his career lurking in shadowy alleys and unlit apartments.
And about that 3-D. Forget the tropes of thrusting swords and flatulent animals; in Hugo we are swept across the Montparnasse platform as Hugo and Isabelle make their many escapes from the guards—scurrying beneath travelers’ overcoats, dashing through steam-filled mechanics’ corridors, climbing past brassy clock faces. When Scorsese recreates a screening of August and Louis Lumiére’s 1895 footage of a moving train, the audience’s jumpy reaction—thinking the engine would barrel off the screen—is precisely the sensation the purveyors of 3-D movies are selling today. Only in Hugo, for once, is it actually felt.
Because all of it, from the honeyed glow of Montparnasse to stills in history books jumping to life to the 3-D imagery to its young protagonists sneaking into a movie theater, is of a piece. We may complain about the declining quality of motion pictures these days, but we keep going back. Film is, as Orson Welles once said, a ribbon of dreams, capable of realizing our wild imaginations and greatest fantasies.
And by its sweet and uplifting final act, Hugo is a tapestry of love stories: Young Hugo and Isabelle; Papa Georges and his wife, Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory); two café dwellers (Richard Griffiths and Francis de la Tour); even Baron Cohen’s bumbling inspector clods his way into the local florist (Emily Mortimer).
But the deepest love of all is that of the director for his medium. Watching Hugo, it’s impossible not to imagine the asthmatic kid sneaking into New York theaters to see the latest by Nicholas Ray and Elia Kazan, or the father of a young daughter finally being able to share his life’s work, or that deep down, we all lost it at the movies.
“Life has taught me happy endings only happen in the movies,” a character says later on. And though that sentiment hardly rings true for most of Scorsese’s films, in Hugo, happy endings never seem more deserved.
Hugo opens tomorrow.