Who other than Martin Scorsese could make a kids movie about the first pioneer of cinema and make it the most visionary, lovely and wondrous film of the year?
Scorsese’s “Hugo” is certainly a departure for the legendary director, and Brian Selznick’s equally imaginative children’s book would likewise be a hot commodity to many other directors, but few people other than Scorsese could wholly embody his love of cinema and general nerddom for silent films and trick artists like Georges Melies and get away with it.
That’s the selling point for me and other adults speculative about how Scorsese would handle a children’s film. “Hugo” could actually double as the biopic of Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley), the story of how as an adult the magician turned filmmaker who made the masterpiece “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) became a quiet recluse who never spoke of his films after nearly all of them had been forgotten and destroyed.
Scorsese worships the man, arguably the first auteur of film, and he honors Melies by literally recreating his films in stunning color and 3-D cinematography.
For all the movies being re-released and up converted into 3-D today, the last one I thought would get the treatment would be “A Trip to the Moon.” Yet I’m giddy at watching this fantastical mystery story for children simply dripping with film history, and there is something wonderfully fulfilling about seeing a moon with a rocket poking out of its eye floating mystically above the screen.
It’s because in essence, Scorsese is rewriting film history by giving Melies a final bow. He’s revitalizing it and swimming in his fantasy the same way Woody Allen did this year with “Midnight in Paris.” Scorsese even finds room to pay respect to numerous other relics of silent film history because, well why not? The famous clock scene from Harold Lloyd’s “Safety Last!” serves as his climactic action set piece, and he twice remakes “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,” this time in real 3-D.
But I found much to love in “Hugo” other than the fact that it doubles as a cinephile’s wet dream. It’s central story arc follows the life of the orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who lives and covertly works in the walls and clocks of a Parisian train station. Hugo has been working tirelessly to repair a mysterious and complex wind-up toy, or automaton, that his father (Jude Law) left him before he died.
He meets and becomes friends with Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who holds a key shaped like a heart to make the automaton come to life. They spend much of their time being chased by the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), a comic foil, but a rigid automaton himself bent on arresting all the orphans running about his station.
And although it’s easy to believe that some of these chase scenes would be gimmicky and rife with prat falls, it’s an enchanting way for Scorsese to firstly pay homage to silent stars like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Max Linder, but also to experiment with 3-D technology.
This is perhaps the most breathtaking thing about “Hugo.” I did not know what great 3-D looked like until I saw it in “Hugo.” Scorsese genuinely understands how to use the medium. One of the film’s opening shots barrels down a never-ending train platform before resting on Hugo’s eyes peeping out of a clock. Every shot makes full use of the endless depth that can be visualized with the new technology, and just the way in which the camera moves about these digital locales is stunning.
The movie comes alive with glowing blue tints and steam billowing out of the frame. Like Hugo, a boy obsessed and fascinated with the meticulous parts and inner workings of mechanics, I too was marveled by the many tricks Scorsese had up his sleeve to make everything look as fantastically beautiful as it does.
And although this is possibly the least Scorsese-esque movie to date, his common themes and tropes are not absent throughout “Hugo,” nor is his terrific command over his performers.
Even if it is a child, Scorsese lovingly focuses in on the individual insecurities and loneliness of his protagonists. Hugo is perhaps not a young Travis Bickle, but these concerns are not foreign.
And the performances, especially by the film’s child actors, are inspired. Asa Butterfield is so quaintly mysterious and actually quite tormented in several of his scenes. Chloe Grace Moretz (“500 Days of Summer,” “Let Me In”) is such a talented actress that Scorsese must work with again in a more serious setting. Here she is brimming with confidence and wide-eyed fascination for books and the movies without ever becoming a cliché.
Perhaps the most surprising breakout star of all is Sacha Baron Cohen. Never did I think I would see a day when Borat himself would be in a Scorsese film, but he proves to be a natural silent comic. Baron Cohen is gifted in his movements and his one-sided conversations, and there is something wonderfully funny, creepy and fascinating about seeing his face leering out of the frame at you in 3-D.
Scorsese perhaps struggles with the film’s happy ending, although it could hardly end differently. But he is lovingly speaking through “Hugo” in his gorgeous cinematography, special effects wizardry and praise of film lore. “Hugo” is one of the magical joys of the year, and everything works like clockwork.