“The secret is always in the clockwork.”
The H-Bomb: After his father’s untimely death, 12 year-old Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is taken in by his uncle (Ray Winstone), who maintains the clocks at a train station in post-World War I Paris. The uncle is a notorious drunk and disappears before long, leaving Hugo alone to take care of the clocks himself. Although, Hugo is not entirely alone, as he has a child-sized mechanical automaton that his father found to keep him company. It appears as though the automaton was designed to write, but since its heart shaped key is missing, Hugo has never been able to turn it on.
Since Hugo lives and works behind the walls of the station, nobody actually knows that he’s the one running the clocks, so he is forced to steal food from the station vendors in order to survive. He has also been taking mechanical toys from a toy booth and using their parts to try and repair the automaton. One day, he is caught by the owner of the toy booth, Georges (Ben Kingsley). When Georges makes Hugo turn out his pockets, he finds a notebook with schematic drawings of the automaton inside it. He confiscates the notebook and tells Hugo that he’s going to burn it, but not simply out of punishment, as the drawings of the automaton seem to actually mean something to Georges.
Shortly after, Hugo follows Georges home and meets his goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). They become fast friends and she agrees to help him get the notebook back. In doing so, they learn something incredible about Georges. Something about his past… before he was a toy booth vendor. And that’s about all I can say about the plot, since discovering the story with our young heroes is the best way to experience it.
“Hugo” is a Martin Scorsese picture. But, it is a different kind of Martin Scorsese picture. There’s no Joe Pesci popping some guy’s eye out with a vice, no Mohawked Robert DeNiro blowing a dude’s hand to pieces with a .44 Magnum. This is a Martin Scorsese family picture. I had no idea such a thing existed, but alas, here it is, and it is an absolute fucking masterpiece. Sorry for dropping the F-bomb in a family film review, but it’s the only way to get my feelings fully across– this review’s for the parents, anyway, not the kiddies.
Normally, I hate family films. I truly despise them. They bore me with their blandness and insult me with their stupidity. But this is one family film that is neither bland nor stupid. Instead, it’s gorgeous, thematically rich, and just absolutely fantastic in every way imaginable. As we come to find, it’s a movie about movies, Scorsese’s love letter to the films of the past, and he made it using all the technology of today to deliver an experience that’s both moving and wholly cinematic. He’s considered one of the greatest directors to have ever lived for a reason, and here, he pulls out all the stops.
As one character puts it, movies are the place where dreams are made, and with a heightened visual style that’s reminiscent of Tim Burton, except with more heart and charm, Scorsese turns all of Paris into a giant dream place. The 3D visuals really pop off the screen and hit like a rocket to the eye socket. The dazzling opening shot, starting on the cityscape of Paris and going into the grimy bowels of the train station, is a stunning blend of CG and live action melded together seamlessly. Scorsese shows us the Lumiere Brothers’ “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat”, the film that made the audience think the train was going to come off the screen and run them over (those poor, dumb primates), and then later on puts his own incredible twist on it.
Scorsese has never made a 3D movie before, but you sure could’ve fooled me, because he uses it in a way that’s not distracting, or a gimmick, but in a way that really immerses us in the story and makes us feel like we’re right there with the characters. The actors really shine in their close ups, and there were so many times when I felt like I could’ve reached out and touched them.
Speaking of the actors, they are yet another major reason this film works as well as it does. The entire cast is on top of their game and they each play their roles, large and small, to perfection. Butterfield, who looked to me like a child version of Cillian Murphy, I’ve never seen before, but he sure made me into a fan with his performance here. He’s equal parts mischievous, vulnerable, and endearing. Carrying a film of this size is a lot to ask of a child actor, but he makes it look so damn easy. He’s matched by Moretz, who is absolutely kick-ass as the girl who holds the key to one of the film’s main secrets. She’s got a big career ahead of her, no doubt about it.
Among the veterans in the cast, Kingsley is first rate as the proud-yet-heartbroken Georges. He has the look of a man with a painful past, who has given up on dreaming, and I see some award nods in his future. Winstone, unfortunately, is in and out of the picture before you really get a chance to notice him, which is too bad, since his colorful lush of a character had potential. Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays the train station cop with a mean Doberman, a gimp leg, and a child-sized jail cell, provides the expected comic relief with his bumbling antics. I expected to truly dislike him, but honestly, I didn’t. He manages to be funny without being too over-the-top or out of place.
In fact, I can’t think of anything to really gripe about. I could whine about the length, as it does go over two hours, but it doesn’t feel too long. The 3D glasses did give me a bit of a headache, but that’s my problem. All things considered, “Hugo” is wonderful on every level; the terrific script, the superb performances, the amazing cinematography (by the great Robert Richardson), and, of course, Scorsese’s masterful direction. I would rate this up there alongside “Goodfellas” and “Raging Bull” as being one of his finest.
It’s a film for young and old, and everyone in between. For film buffs, especially those with an affinity for the dawn of cinema, “Hugo” will be a huge treat. Never mind the lame vampire soap operas, the dancing penguins, the talking animal puppets (as much as I love them), and all that other nonsense, “Hugo” is true cinematic magic and pretty much perfect. It’s certainly my favorite film of the year, I even put it over “Super 8″. If you only get out to see one film this Holiday Season, do make it this one.