Hugo (2011) Review

Martin Scorsese seems to have rediscovered his inner child with his latest offering. Hugo is magical, fun, and endearing. Moreover, there’s a particular vivacity in the direction and lightheartedness in the presentation that may surprise admirers of Scorsese films. Despite being led by young actors, however, Hugo isn’t necessarily for children – no matter how the trailers try to sell the movie. Beneath the whimsical veneer is a plot that only adults with a love of film history will truly appreciate.

Set in 1930s Paris, young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) and his father (Jude Law) love to tinker. Hugo’s father is a professional clockmaker who instilled in his son the fondness of restoring broken machines. So when Hugo’s father dies suddenly in a fire, leaving Hugo a mysterious, broken mechanical figure, Hugo makes it his mission in his young life to restore the machine, thinking he will receive a special message from his father. Without his parents in his life, however, Hugo is forced to live with his drunkard uncle (Ray Winstone) who winds and maintains the clocks at the Paris train station. When his uncle disappears, Hugo continues to maintain the clocks while scrounging for parts at the station to rebuild the mechanical figure. Unfortunately, this involves stealing from a local wind-up toy merchant (Ben Kingsley) who seems to maintain a secret that debilitates his spirit, rending him a broken person. And yet, the toy merchant may literally be the key to bringing Hugo’s mechanical figure back to life.

Audiences will probably be very surprised at the kind of movie Hugo eventually turns out to be. Everything about its first impression, including child lead actors, vibrant color palette, 3-D offering and more, is geared for a young audience. The first act sets up a problem – finding a heart-shaped key to unlock the mysteries of the mechanical figure – that will fill young viewers’ minds with thoughts of wondrous adventures about the boy that lived in the walls of the train station. Ironically, the plot takes a different course that is grounded much more in reality than moviegoers will probably expect. In fact, the film is less about fairytale mysteries and more about film appreciation, which may lose the interest of some of the younger viewers. Hugo touches on movies’ beginnings, its inventors and those who first discovered its storytelling possibilities. In many ways, the film pays tribute to an art form that is both taken for granted and revered for touching audiences in ways no other medium can. There’s even a nice homage to the classic Safety Last! that will elicit smiles from those familiar with the film. It’s unclear and unlikely, however, that young viewers will appreciate Hugo on this level.

While Hugo recognizes that filmmaking is an art form, Hugo is a work of art in and of itself. Every frame is beautiful to behold, and the filmmakers obviously went out of their way to craft something unique and sensuous. An early scene features a beautiful and almost impossibly long shot that follows Hugo through the narrow passages of the train station walls as he starts his day. The effect is breathtaking and assures audiences that they are in the hands of master craftsmen. Special attention to detail was devoted to the sets, revealing unspoken traits about the characters, ranging from Hugo’s mechanized world full of gears and cranks to the somber, snow-covered hooded statues outside the toy merchant’s home. The world of Hugo feels unique, real and alive.

The reality of Hugo is so immersive that it almost doesn’t matter that the story is largely directionless and full of unnecessary subplots. A man is attracted to a bistro owner, but has trouble approaching her because of her dog. The station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) is attracted to a flower girl (Emily Mortimer) but is self-conscious about his disability. The toy merchant takes a valued notebook away from Hugo, which is a heartbreaking loss that prompts Hugo to work for the toy merchant to earn it back. Later in the film, however, the notebook is completely forgotten. Tangents like these help flesh out the film, but are largely irrelevant to the story being told. Love of film is an important aspect of the movie and one that Hugo mentions as a big part of his relationship with his father. It just would have been nice to see Hugo actually enjoying a movie with his father.

Thankfully, the acting is solid throughout. The young leads Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz as Hugo’s friend, Isabelle, are engaging and handle their roles with maturity and perspective, but represent their character ages appropriately. Ben Kingsley is reliable as ever, as is Sacha Baron Cohen who predictably inhabits his character completely. While he’s forced to play the film’s villain, he manages to eke out just a little bit of texture when he can to hint at the real man beneath the archetype. All in all, the cast works very together.

Hugo is unmistakably remarkable in its production. It’s stylish, warm and a little magical in unexpected ways. Martin Scorsese seems to have indulged the young, creative spirit within to balance out his grittier offerings. While Hugo won’t necessarily appeal to children’s sensibilities by the time the film ends, young viewers will still appreciate being represented as the key to happiness in an adult world.