By Michael Koresky
Dir. Martin Scorsese, U.S., Paramount Pictures
Movie love can make people do strange things. It can lead someone, as it did Brian Selznick, to write and illustrate a book devoted to the power of the moving image, captured in pencil drawings meant to evoke film frames. It can lead filmmakers, such as Martin Scorsese, to not only direct, produce, and write films but create nonprofit foundations dedicated to the preservation of cinema, an art form that has historically been plagued by disintegration, decay, and disinterest. It can lead us to proselytize with an almost divine fervor about what is good or bad, or, more often, what is The Best or The Worst, and it can also lead otherwise sensible, even astute, critics to turn their passion into an annual horse race of winners and losers, of awards and listmaking. Scorseseâ€™s Hugo is the proud beneficiary of all these examples and tendencies. Thereâ€™s something almost synergistic to itâ€”itâ€™s hard to imagine someone whoâ€™s invested in cinema as an art form not feeling even the smallest pull toward it. Itâ€™s a film that is a proclamation as much as it is a movie, a cause as much as an entertainment: this is cinema, it says, donâ€™t let it die. In its fetching use of 3D and CGI imagery, it looks fearlessly forward even as it instructs about cinemaâ€™s origins. It could have been subtitled â€śNever Fade Away,â€ť so steeped is it in the act of remembering.
All of this also means that Hugo is a slam-dunk, whether or not it recoups its budget. One might have assumed the filmâ€™s overwhelmingly positive reception to have been far from a sure thing: after all, the film cost Paramount upwards of $150 million and there are few events that movie-watchers salivate over more than a mega-ton flop. And Hugo, though based on a known entityâ€”Selznickâ€™s best-selling, Caldecott-awarded childrenâ€™s book The Invention of Hugo Cabretâ€”certainly sounds like a tough sell: an ostensible childrenâ€™s film set in 1930s Paris whose circuitous plot (â€śunlock the mystery!â€ť beckons the trailer) is actually a skeletal frame on which to drape a tale of early moving-image magic, generally, and Georges MĂ©liĂ¨s, specifically. But the love of movies that courses through this film, and which announces itself in the most direct manner possibleâ€”not even De Palma, Tarantino, or Spielberg has ever fashioned such a grandly nonsubtextual ode to the power of cinemaâ€”is so flattering to filmmaker and viewer alike that one might as well lop the â€śoâ€ť off the title. Itâ€™s a warm embrace from a cinephile to his brethrenâ€”and this time even the kids are invited. Whatâ€™s not to love?
The fact that Hugo does appeal so well to kids demonstrates Scorseseâ€™s willingness and ability to just tell a good story first and foremost. However itâ€™s also what makes the film feel as sputtering as it often does bewitching. Its subject matter opens it up to all manner of cinematic flourish and possibility, so itâ€™s a bit of a letdown that Scorseseâ€™s film feels often fettered and generic. The first hour or so is especially bound by conventions that may try some viewersâ€™ patienceâ€”unmoored from Selznickâ€™s ravishingly rendered black-and-white drawings (which tell the tale in a way thatâ€™s part flipbook, part storybook, part illustrated novel), the story of an orphaned boy living in the Gare Montparnasse train station in Paris, trying to repair an automaton he believes will give him a message from his dead father, loses some of its enigma and surrealness. On the page, young Hugo Cabretâ€™s intimate journey unfolds for the reader as though itâ€™s being unearthed piece by piece while rummaging through a treasure chest. Selznickâ€™s approximation of a camera zoom over a series of flipped pages is more remarkable, in this case, than the real thing. The book is particularly beguiling in the way the author-illustrator is able to make cinema come alive in static images; since the story, with its preponderance of clocks and references to a bygone era, is fixated on time and loss, it does seem rather like a kiddie version of Markerâ€™s freeze-framed La JetĂ©e.
On screen, however, with cinematographer Robert Richardsonâ€™s classily chilling blue gels and smooth tracking shots, production designer Dante Ferrettiâ€™s sets with their illusory sense of scale, crack editor Thelma Schoonmakerâ€™s calm and receptive reverse-shots and even sense of pacing, Sandy Powellâ€™s fairy-tale-tattered period garb, and Howard Shoreâ€™s aggressive family-film musical score (talk about an all-star crew), Hugo often feels more proficient than inspiring. Thereâ€™s also a lack of vivid acting presences in the film: Sacha Baron Cohenâ€™s bumbling child-catching security guard is a mite too Monty Python (in his performance, one can see how Terry Gilliam might have tipped this contraption way over into grotesquerie), and thereâ€™s something inescapably Harry Potter-and-Hermione about young Brit Asa Butterfield and English-accented ChloĂ« Grace Moretz as the titular urchin and Isabelle, his wide-eyed, up-for-adventure gal pal who aids him in his quest to find the key to jumpstart the mysterious mechanical man, a scavenger hunt of sorts that brings it all back home for Isabelle, whose godfather, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley, phoning it in with a starched-collar routine), turns out to be none other than magic man MĂ©liĂ¨s himself. Furthermore, when itâ€™s being utilized to simply establish the labyrinthine architecture and passageways that make up little Hugoâ€™s big, strange world, the 3D feels depressingly common in that millennial-movie way in which gravity doesnâ€™t seem to factor into filmmaking anymore: through windows, down the sides of buildings, across the skyâ€”is there anywhere the â€ścameraâ€ť canâ€™t go now?
Then, in the second hour, the film takes a breath and finds not only its rhythm but also its reason for being. Scorsese stops Hugo dead for an extended, lovingly realized treatiseâ€”instructional video?â€”on MĂ©liĂ¨s and by extension the origins of cinema, the beauty of silent movie expression, and the importance of preserving it. The filmâ€™s biggest tearjerking moment is the revelation that Papa Georges, destitute later in life, was forced to sell his own films so that their celluloid could be melted down to make shoe heels. The literal loss of film is not simply melancholic but tragic, the inciting event that turned this fictional version of Monsieur MĂ©liĂ¨s into a recluse as well as a mean-tempered man just this side of fairy-tale ogre. Hugo and Isabelleâ€™s reclamation of this washed-up genius, whiling away his latter days at a toy booth in the Gare Montparnasse, parallels Scorseseâ€™s bringing film history out of the shadows for a new generation for whom cinema is just one more file on the hard drive. How he makes this possible should perhaps be more controversial than it has proven thus far: by altering the images of silent cinema through 3D technology, and in a couple of instances, using CGI to insert contemporary actors into shots from A Trip to the Moon. Whether or not this is at all blasphemous is up for each viewer to decide; what seems to matter is the momentary charge it gives those of us that really care, who relish the chance to sit in a multiplex amidst an appreciative audience and see that man in the moon get that rocket in the eye. Whatever doodads and gizmos encircle the frame of that 1902 fantasy film, Scorsese seems to be telling us that people like MĂ©liĂ¨s were the real wizards. Everything we do now is merely an attempt to recapture just a little bit of their magic.