Hugo (2011, Martin Scorsese)

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This gently sweeping, sentimental children’s story has its roots in an opulently illustrated picture book with a far better title, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It may surprise you to learn that all the business in this film about George Méliès and silent cinema is inherent to the source material, so its status as a valentine to early film and a lecture about the importance of film preservation predates the passionate director’s involvement. That’s getting ahead a bit, though — at the center, this is the story of a shoplifting orphan haunting the walls of a train station in the 1920s attempting to restore an astoundingly cool automaton to working condition, harassed in turn by the owner of a toy stand (Ben Kingsley, in a possibly career-saving performance) and by a bumbling station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, who is what he is). But of course, that is no mere toy shop owner. That is the great Méliès, the discovery of whom is the crux of the narrative.

Scorsese of course has never made a children’s film before, and while it shows in the project’s outlandish size and languid pacing, the stretch is good for him. In contrast to, say, Robert Zemeckis, it appears Scorsese has actually watched a couple of movies that were made for kids and thus has some clue how to cleanly shoot and design (if not structure) them without flabbiness, force or condescension. The thing goes on a bit too long and doesn’t really know when to stop belaboring its various points, but as a bit of sparkly Hollywood magic it hits its target — at least in theory. At the screening I saw, though, and based on the experience of everyone I know who’s seen the film, the people actually going to see Hugo are elderly couples and a few scattered childless adults. Kids don’t seem interested, which is a pity because I can honestly say I think I’d have been far more enthusiastic about the film at 10 or 12 years old than I was as a weathered and cynical late twentysomething.

Still, I got choked up more than once, which means the thing has emotional power if nothing else. What brought the tears was, by turns, the performance of young Asa Butterfield as the title character, whose desperation to retain some trace of his father is constantly palpable, more than the script can really make it, and the sincere magic of Scorsese’s montages and tributes in appreciation of film itself, specifically the earliest of silent films. As someone whose tastes have careened in that direction in the last decade, I brightened up and felt overwhelmed when bits of The Great Train Robbery and Edison’s Kiss showed up on that massive screen. Of course, much of this is the work of those films and not Hugo, but the material is well-integrated into the narrative and masterfully edited together. Other audience members giggled at the primitive special effects and the notion of early theatergoers ducking to escape an oncoming train, but to me nothing could be more beautiful, more wonderful. For this alone, Hugo was an unforgettable experience to see projected. Perhaps then I’ll remember it as the time I saw excerpts from the work of the Lumières, Edison, Porter, and of course Méliès theatrically for the first (and hopefully not only) time.

In the train station itself, Scorsese has crafted a setting of unreal, out of time beauty; heavy on composites and computer-assisted effects, the station has a strong sense of lived-in space and abstract if not intellectual period detail that fuses wonderfully with the film’s captivating sense of mystery. Modeled upon Gare Montparanasse (with the famous train derailment figuring in an impressively frantic but completely unnecessary dream sequence), the bustling building seems almost too much to fit in the frame — which makes it seem ideal for Scorsese’s 3D filming technique, and if anything the result is one of the stronger uses of the frivolous format in recent times, although the movie’s delightful transplanting of A Trip to the Moon and other Méliès works into three dimensions could be enough artistic justification for the entire fad. It’s helpful that the director has fixated upon atmosphere, for there’s no sense in which a film can stand up to the imagination exhibited by Brian Selznick’s drawings in his Caldecott-winning book.

But movies can do a few things that books can’t, and it’s helpful to return to the very source of our cinematic culture to learn how these things work, how they were discovered. There’s much commentary in Hugo regarding the undeniably important subject of how unkind time has been to celluloid, but the creation of dreams and magic in this new visual art is what Hugo is really about, even more than it’s about a boy who needs a family. The story, like Selznick’s book, is generally accurate about the general thrust of Méliès’ life — he did work as a magician with Jeanne Méliès as his assistant, they did own a theater, he did make more than five hundred movies (a heartbreaking number of them now lost), and he did in fact retire from filmmaking and virtually disappear after WWI, taking a job running a toy stand at the train station. The historical attention isn’t crucial, but it somehow makes the invented portions of the story less vivid and exciting; you end up wanting the entire film to be about George Méliès’ fascinating life.

The primary problem with that film would be its exclusion of the splendid performances by the two young leading actors. While Cohen grapples along with his limited slapstick (and a brilliant scene involving his inability to smile), Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz (of Let Me In) as Méliès’ goddaughter make a scrappily enchanting team, fully selling the sense of adventure. And the first half that concentrates entirely on the absorbingly enigmatic automaton and the drawing he’ll eventually make of a crucial moment from A Trip to the Moon is a compelling enough story that seems wholly separate from the Méliès biography. Don’t discount either the joy of seeing a young boy and girl sneak in to see the Harold Lloyd comedy Safety Last. As appealing as both performers are, it’s surprisingly easy to imagine a more streamlined film just involving Moretz discovering just who her cranky old godfather is, and her closeness to him might better justify the lurching absence of cohesion to his character (cantankerous cruel asshole to oversize puppy dog) in the finished film. But that would mean creating a Hollywood kid-targeted film with a little girl as its central character, and we can’t have that!

That’s another trap Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, Sweeney Todd, Rango) fall into — the explicit overstating and constant restating of the story’s various themes. Méliès himself seems in particular to have a habit of pontificating about “dreams” and “magic” (Kingsley does his best with this but he’s always better at showing than telling), and his artificial singling out of Hugo as the reason for his resurfacing undercuts the loveliness of the scene in which his body of work is at last recognized — another moment that actually occurred late in Méliès’ life. And it wouldn’t be an American children’s film without the tacked-on intrusion of moralistic mouthpiece lines about finding your “purpose” and other such claptrap. It’s things like this that drive the Edwin S. Porter and George Méliès fans of the world away from modern American filmmaking that never met anything it couldn’t overexplain.

What’s interesting is that, as a consistent critic of Martin Scorsese, these are not the problems I usually have with his films — they’re all-new problems, and far more tolerable than the things he usually gets a pass for: random events, dismally one-dimensional characterization, rash sexism, and macho pessimism for its own nihilistic sake. Like The Departed, Hugo suggests that the old king of self-seriousness has found a way to have fun. Perhaps it’s because one thing that’s never been in doubt about him is his open and complete love of movies; that he finally found a way to make a narrative picture about it is as much a pleasure for us as for him.

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