Untie the brightly colored silk ribbon from the softly textured wrapping paper concealing the delicately carved box containing the lustrous golden ornament that is “Hugo” and you will be rewarded with a wonderful film about film cloaked in an emotional and deeply rewarding, multi-layered children’s tale that has arrived just in time for the holiday season. Like the book it’s based on, Brian Selznick’s best selling The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which slowly draws in the reader with the turning of each page, so to does “Hugo” envelope the viewer.
“Hugo,” set in Paris in the early ‘30s, tells the story of recently orphaned young Hugo Cabret who is forced into an apprenticeship by his cruel, alcoholic Uncle Claude at a busy train station. In short order, Hugo, now abandoned by his uncle, finds himself living in the dirty, unseen crawl spaces of the station, dutifully keeping all the giant mechanical clocks running, a job for which he is well-suited as he is descended from a long line of clockmakers. It is a lonely existence, for he must survive on the temporarily unguarded croissants and fruits from the station café and stay in the shadows and hidden corridors lest the Station Keeper, a stern authoritarian figure with a wooden leg, courtesy of the Great War, and his menacing Doberman catch him and send him to a State orphanage. Quick on his feet, with the manual dexterity of a pickpocket, Hugo’s life is made pleasant only by his devotion to a project started with his father – the repair of a mechanical man found abandoned at the museum where his father worked and then died tragically. It is Hugo’s only remaining connection to his father and he spends his every waking hour (and sometimes his dreams) devoted to understanding the drawings in the notebook his father left behind and stealing the parts indicated by that notebook as being necessary to return the automaton to function. It is these minor thefts of gears and small tools from the station toy repair kiosk that is his undoing; for the owner, Georges, has been aware of Hugo’s thieving for sometime and finally catches him in the act, confiscating the beloved notebook. Thus Hugo is drawn into the mysterious and bitter world of Georges, godfather of his only ally, Isabelle, and a man of infinite secrets.
Directed imaginatively, lovingly and reverentially by Martin Scorsese, the lush sets and scenic design have been lifted almost in their entirety from the pages of Selznick’s Caldecott-winning novel. An idealized Paris of the 1930s, softly drawn, lit as through a gauze filter, fully captures an era long-gone but fondly remembered. But this film is so much more than the adventure of a heroic boy trying to avoid the well-defined villains in the story. It too, like the recently reviewed “The Artist”, is an homage to an era of cinema that was in danger of being lost forever. Georges, the bitter toy repairman, is none other than Georges Melies, one of the pioneers of filmmaking who reigned supreme in the years before World War I and then was all but entirely forgotten, his films thought to be lost forever and he, himself, thought to have been killed in the war.
At first glance, the director of “Kings of New York” and “The Departed” known for his often gratuitous use of violence, would not have been anyone’s first choice to direct a movie based on a beloved children’s novel, but it is the subtext and underlying story of magic and the cinema that makes him absolutely the first choice to guide this film. A leader in film restoration and film history, Scorsese has found the perfect vehicle in this story to introduce a new audience to the wonderful origins of the medium, although he has a tendency to err on the side of exposition using the character of a film historian, Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg in a rather thankless role) to deliver pedantic lectures on the history of Georges Melies and early cinema to Hugo and Isabelle, temporarily slowing what had been a lively pace.
The 3D format of course yields added depth and an almost tactile sensation especially in the clockwork sequences where gear meshes with gear and pulleys coordinate with ropes (although I’d like to go on record protesting the high added cost to consumers). The gorgeous production design of Dante Ferretti, Robert Richardson’s cinematography and costumes by Sandy Powell, all previous Oscar winners, will be seen to their best advantage in 3D, although in standard format they will still be lush and beautiful and deserving of the Oscar nominations sure to come their way. Howard Shore’s score and the use of incidental music by Eric Satie enhance the many moods of Hugo and Paris. Limited use of dialogue heightens the emotions and mystery experienced by all the characters. Asa Butterfield brings wide-eyed innocence mixed with fear to Hugo; Chloë Grace Moritz as Isabelle would have been labeled plucky and game in an earlier film era. Ben Kingsley, the solid anchor to which this film is moored, conveys the disappointment and the weight of the world in just the twist of a tiny screwdriver as he tries unsuccessfully to repair a mechanical mouse. In supporting roles, Sasha Baron Cohen, as the Station Inspector is threatening, rigid (and not just because of his malfunctioning mechanical leg), humorous, romantic and flawed. Frances de la Tour as the owner of the café and Richard Griffiths, her would-be suitor, both veterans of the “Harry Potter” franchise, bring comic relief in a romance that plays out serially in little vignettes interspersed throughout the film. Christopher Lee, well-disguised, brings both menace and warmth to his role as the Bookseller. And in almost cameo-sized appearances, Ray Winstone makes Uncle Claude a dissipate Dickensian villain and Jude Law, as Hugo’s father, brings such warmth to his role that you can feel Hugo’s loss.
Rated PG, this film should be shared by the family as it is a childhood adventure to be visited for the first time by the kids and relived by the adults. Now playing at theaters everywhere including ArcLight Beach Cities, AMC South Bay Galleria, AMC Rolling Hills, and AMC Del Amo.
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