2011, Sir Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Christopher Lee, et al. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay by John Logan from the book by Brian Selznick.
I have just returned from some parallel universe where Martin Scorsese makes kid’s movies and Sacha Baron Cohen plays a funny, yet lovable and quirky character that is entirely suitable for viewing by children. I really liked that place. I’d love to visit there again.
The previews for Hugo looked fairly interesting but I was inclined to pass it over as just more typical, big-budget Christmastime family fare, not something that I would find much substance in. It went on my “rent it eventually” list. Then I saw that it was directed by Martin Scorsese. That Martin Scorsese?! The director who gave us The Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island*, the classics Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and a host of others? These are titles that spring immediately to mind as some of the most memorable from a very prolific director, but they are all quite definitely aimed at an adult audience. You want a beautiful movie that includes violence and mature themes – Scorsese is the go-to man. Sure, Scorsese is versatile, but is he versatile enough to make a movie suitable for children? It was a conundrum. I paid closer attention to the previews. The story is based on an award-winning book. Sacha Baron Cohen and Sir Ben Kingsley are both in it. Kingsley brings a sense of class and style to mind; Cohen – to put it mildly – does not. What kind of film is this that seems to be packaging up all of these wildly disparate elements? Hugo was removed from the rental list and elevated to the “must see it in a theater right away” list.
The movie Hugo is based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Set in the 1930’s, Hugo Cabret has been orphaned and lives in the walls of the Paris train station. Hugo and his father had been restoring a mechanical man before the father died, and it is Hugo’s obsession to finish. He must steal not only the food he eats, but also the spare parts and gears needed to repair the automaton. One day Hugo is caught filching more parts by a mean old man who runs a toy shop stall at the train station and also meets the man’s goddaughter Isabelle who – miraculously – seems to be the keeper of the key to the mystery of the automaton’s purpose. The mystery only deepens as Hugo and Isabelle keep trying to discover the secrets that can explain what links the old man, the automaton, and Hugo to each other.
The one word that may best capture the essence of this movie is simply “magic.” Ben Kingsley is wonderful as the sad, mean old man, Sacha Baron Cohen is a comedic genius who should play this kind of family-friendly role more often, and the two young actors Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz are incredible. Christopher Lee is a treat as are the familiar faces among the train station regulars. The sets are amazing, evoking a sense of not only a particular place and time but also an emotional connection to Hugo’s world. We view the inner workings of all the gears and springs perfectly meshed, ticking away as the world rushes by, people unaware of the delicate human touches necessary to maintain the façade they can see.
As Hugo and Isabelle finally begin to get answers to their questions, we are treated to the most magical of illusions; the discovery of where our very dreams come from. Scorsese is a modern-day magician who has crafted a unique classic with appeal to an audience of all ages that captures the wonder and joy of making dreams come to life. The ability to capture dreams and give them to the world on film is truly a gift that should be honored, preserved, and shared with future generations. If you consider yourself a cinephile, a lover of movies, and this one does not touch you deeply, you have no imagination and you should resign from the human race.
One last thought – Ben Kingsley’s character is Georges Melies. You might want to Google him after you see the film.
*Yes, I am a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio. Even when some members of my family mistakenly refer to him as Leonardo DaVinci. Envision the dramatic heaving of a heavy sigh, the exaggerated rolling of eyes, and a head shaken in despair; not all of my relatives share my passion for cinema. I love them anyway.