The thematic and emotional depth of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is astonishing, given how simple its story truly is. The film functions as an enthralling mystery and adventure complete with plenty of thrills and incredibly lovable characters, but even on a surface level this is a rather melancholy tale of loneliness and regret. It’s a joy to watch, though, for cinema fans in particular. Indeed, one of the many subtly brilliant things about this motion picture is the way in which it makes us feel like the two children at the center of it do when they’re watching a movie in a dark cinema (a first-time experience for one of them): full of wonder and delight. That sense of wonder persists from start to finish and never lets up, with the result being one of the best 2011 films I’ve seen so far.
Hugo’s title character (Asa Butterfield in an outstanding lead performance) is a boy who lives in the walls of a train station in Paris. He takes care of the station’s clocks, a skill taught to him by his alcoholic uncle just before the man abandoned him. He steals spare parts from a toymaker, which we soon discover he uses in an effort to fix an automaton that he and his now deceased father once worked on. One day the toymaker catches him and makes Hugo hand over all of his possessions, including a notebook containing drawings of the machine. Distressed over losing this book, Hugo follows him home, where he meets the man’s goddaughter Isabelle (an excellent Chloe Moretz), who promises to keep it from being destroyed. The two quickly become friends, with the book-loving Isabelle intrigued by the adventurous aspects of Hugo’s life. She eventually provides the literal key to making the automaton work, and once it does things become even more compelling.
The movie is about grief as much as anything. Over the first half (or thereabouts, since I was far too enraptured to look at the time), we observe Hugo’s general isolation and sadness. He clings to the notion of fixing the broken automaton, explaining to Isabelle that he believes it contains a message from his father. Once the machine starts working again, the message is revealed to be about Papa Georges (the toymaker, who’s played brilliantly by Ben Kingsley). And Hugo then undergoes a slight shift in focus as the pair bring to light painful truths about Georges’s secret past as a filmmaker. But the same sorrowful tone remains as it explores Georges’s own sense of grief, which unlike Hugo’s is not over a person, but over a certain period of time seemingly gone forever. Is it really, though? As Hugo himself remarks, Georges is broken and needs to be fixed just as much as any object does. And in doing so, Hugo can begin to move beyond his own loss and start to find his way in the world. The film’s climax is thus cathartic for both of these individuals, and the happy ending (like most great happy endings) feels all the more triumphant for having come after all of this emotional pain.
Then there’s Hugo’s sheer adoration of cinema itself, which is probably another reason I responded so strongly and positively to it. This is a film whose second hour devotes an extensive amount of time to flashbacks (and from what I’ve read, very accurate ones) of certain silent movies and a couple of the people involved in making them. While the silent era is one I haven’t yet explored as much as I want to, these sequences still made my cinephile heart beat just a little bit faster with pure excitement. Hugo isn’t really about the movies (it’s about all the stuff I spent that insanely long third paragraph describing, and more), but it’s a film movie lovers should enjoy even more than people who merely like films or are indifferent towards them.
I also appreciated the way the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) is developed, particularly since he could have very easily been reduced to a one-dimensional villain. Instead, his bumbling attempts to talk to a young woman selling flowers in the station endear him to us, and subtle hints placed throughout the film suggest a man who’s just as lonely as Hugo and deserves to find happiness just as much as the boy, which he eventually does. The only true bad guy in Hugo is fate, seen in the war which took the inspector’s leg and Papa Georges’s career, as well as the fire that claimed the life of Hugo’s dad. The characters are sympathetic human beings trying their best to overcome the hand life has dealt them, and their ultimate success is the movie’s greatest gift.
Another gift is the imagery, which is utterly dazzling. I saw Hugo in 3-D, and while it’s not a necessity (this is a great movie and would be just as great in two dimensions) it certainly heightens the impact of the visual majesty on display here and serves to draw you into the beautiful story even more. The station itself is a wonder of detail, but it’s the cavernous insides of the walls that really stand out in terms of the wow factor. Everything is put together just perfectly, aside from two totally unnecessary and spell-breaking dream sequences placed back-to-back that seem to serve no purpose, but are so short that they also don’t really have much of a negative impact. Other than that, there’s pretty much nothing wrong with this film, which will almost certainly be nominated for a boatload of Oscars.
And all of them will be deserved, because this is simply an outright masterpiece in every sense of the word. It’s complex, emotionally engaging, and thematically rich, much in the same way that The Tree of Life and Poetry (the other two films from 2011 I’ve seen so far that I’d assign that label to) are, all while under the guise of mass entertainment. It is mass entertainment, of course, but it’s also so much more than that. Hugo should delight the casual viewer, but for those of us whose magical early experiences at the movies have wound up defining who we are, it serves to recreate that feeling and to validate giving up so much of our lives to them. It is truly as special as they come.Grade: A