It seemed so shocking to me at first when I found out that Martin Scorsese was going to direct an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The director of Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and The Departed was going to make (what’s essentially) a children’s film? And he was going to shoot it in digital 3D? The guy who started the Film Foundation? Well, it certainly wasn’t a prank, and perhaps if I had bothered to look up some info on the book I would’ve understood why Scorsese was keen on making the film (as well as shooting it in 3D). It took me a month after it opened to make some time to see the film, and I would go on to see it two more times on the big screen (for a total of three times, tying it with The Departed for the most times I’ve seen a Scorsese film theatrically).
2011’s Hugo features Asa Butterfield as Hugo Cabret, an orphaned boy who lives in a Paris train station, running all the clocks for his missing drunken uncle (Ray Winstone). Hugo gathers trinkets and various parts from time to time for an automaton, a machine that he and his father (Jude Law) had started to put back together prior to his father’s death in a museum fire. There are a variety of characters at the train station, including an inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), a flower shop owner (Emily Mortimer), a toymaker (Ben Kingsley) and his goddaughter (Chloe Grace Moretz), and a book shop owner (Christopher Lee). One day, Hugo is caught by the toymaker, but when he discovers Hugo’s notebook and the drawings of the automaton, he keeps the notebook, promising to burn it. When Hugo’s pleas to have it returned are ignored, he tries to get Isabel, the goddaughter, to get it back for him. This would mark the beginning of a grand adventure for them.
When viewing the film, it took a while for me to understand why Scorsese would’ve wanted to make this film. When Hugo finally gets the automaton to work, it draws a picture of the moon with a pair of eyes. I immediately recognized it from Georges Melies’ classic 1902 silent short A Trip To the Moon. When it’s later revealed that the toymaker is Melies, I knew I had found what attracted Scorsese to this film. Hugo essentially makes the case for film preservation and is about embracing new technology (which is what Melies did when he combined his magic tricks with filmmaking). Scorsese also embraced new technology, which is why he shot this film digitally (his first time; he shot all of his previous movies on film) and in 3D (this film features the best use of 3D ever, although 2009’s Avatar and 2012’s Life of Pi are a close second). The film scholar Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg) attempts to locate as many Melies films as possible, marking the first major step towards film preservation.
The performances were all very wonderful. The Oscar-winning special effects were just incredible, as was Robert Richardson’s Oscar-winning cinematography. The references to silent classic films were very nice (I particularly liked the Harold Lloyd reference when Hugo was hanging off the clock). I especially enjoyed the scenes of Melies making his films (I’m pretty sure Scorsese loved recreating the making of Melies’ films). I’d be a fool to not mention Howard Shore’s terrific Oscar-nominated score, adding just the right amount of French flavoring to the music. The Oscar-winning production design by Dante Ferretti was also masterful, recreating an authentic 1930s Paris. As a cinephile, I love this movie so much, but you don’t need to be a cinephile to enjoy this film or any of the many cinematic references that are made. This film tells an engaging story, is quite educational for non-cinephiles, and dare I say, full of magic. If you ever wondered if there was any magic left in the movies, then I proudly submit Martin Scorsese’s Hugo as definitive proof.