Once in a while, a film comes along that defies simple explanation. The story proves complex, the characters unexpectedly nuanced, and the entire narrative experience is beyond anything you expect. Hugo is just such a movie, a story that succeeds as a children’s fable in the spirit of childhood fantasies like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and City of Ember, and simultaneously offers a surprisingly deep and profound exploration of love, family and what it means to be human.
Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is a scruffy orphan who lives in forgotten spaces hidden in the walls of Gare Montparnasse, a bustling train station located in the center of Paris. It’s 1931 and memories of The Great War are fresh, even as everyone tries to resume their normal lives.
How Hugo became an orphan is a major story element and at one point we meet Hugo’s father (Jude Law), a watchmaker and tinkerer. His mother has long since vanished, and Hugo clearly adores his happy, upbeat father. They tinker with an automaton that they’ve salvaged from a museum until his father dies in a mysterious fire. Hugo is then adopted by his alcoholic Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) and moves to the station. His job: keep the station clocks working.
Hugo is caught attempting to steal a small clockwork mouse by the gruff, unhappy Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), who takes Hugo’s notebook, insisting that the young urchin work for Méliès to recompense him for the goods previously stolen. Méliès? Yes, that Méliès, one of the pioneers of cinema and most famously the director of the ground-breaking 1902 silent film Le voyage dans la lune.
The intertwining stories of Hugo’s experience at Gare Montparnasse getting by on his own wits while outwitting the comical and tragic Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), his budding romance with delightfully perky Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) and his earnest passion for repairing the automaton in the hopes it hides a secret message from his father all combine to create an extraordinary — if occasionally long-winded — fantasy world and heart-warming film. Highly recommended.
Most movies seem to have one or two memorable characters and a cast of supporting roles that are all one-dimensional, without nuance and quickly forgettable. Hugo defies this dismal convention with the experienced directorial touch of Martin Scorsese, and every character in the film is interesting, believable and a welcome addition to the story, from the handicapped Station Inspector (dryly and wittily played by Sacha Baron Cohen to the bakery owner Madame Emilie (an impossibly sweet Frances de la Tour), whose budding romance with Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths) is neatly paralleled by both the growing relationship between Hugo and Isabelle and with Madame’s dog and, eventually, Monsieur’s dog.
At a deeper, more profound level, Hugo’s passion to rebuild his automaton is both literally and figuratively the heart of the story. Indeed, the 2/3 scale human-like clockwork figure can’t work until a heart-shaped key is inserted into the center of its chest, a key that Isabelle is unknowingly wearing, having borrowed it from her guardian, Jeanne (Helen McCrory), Méliès life-long companion and true love.
It is in Hugo’s earnest, heartfelt quest for meaning that the film operates on a deeper level. He has lost his parents to tragedy, and just as France is recovering from the horror of The Great War he too is trying to understand his place in a world defined by the arrival and departure of steam engines and the simple predictability of clockwork and giant gears. As he seeks understanding, the gears turn, the hands tick and he travels a road towards family, love, and life itself.
Hugo (Asa Butterfield), the automaton and Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) from “Hugo”
In addition to the superb performances — and fun cameos, keep a close eye! — the visual style of Hugo is astonishing, a magical, gleaming world of giant gears keeping everything moving forward, hundreds of faceless passengers marching through the station, bright, lively costume colors, and an extraordinary attention to detail that makes this a film worth studying when released on DVD. Most appealing were the sequences that likened the bustle of Paris, particularly the great traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe, to the neatly ordered ticking of a watch.
Having been so lavish in my praise, I also have to offer a criticism: if you don’t love cinema, if you aren’t well versed in the early history of movies and silent films, there are a number of overly long sequences that verge on boring. For children taken to this film based on its “children’s story” positioning in trailers, these passages are going to be a chance for the little ones to squirm uncomfortably, yawn and wonder when the “real film” is going to start again.
With that said, I loved Hugo. it’s one of the most delightful, most cinematic films I have seen in ages and I’ll definitely see it again. Even the 3D was well done and added to the magic of the film (a definite rarity), and the Parisian soundtrack by veteran composer Howard Shore perfectly fit the mood and underlying whimsy of this surprisingly profound and thoughtful film. Go see it. And if you love cinema, go see it a second time.