Thoughts on Hugo

I sometimes wonder whether Singin’ in the Rain really is the greatest movie musical ever made. I think it is, but I may be prejudiced because Singin’ is, after all, a movie about film history–something I care very much about. Other critics and historians may have a similar prejudice.

And so we come to Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s family-friendly fantasy adventure that turns into an entertaining lesson on the importance of film preservation. Could this be a movie that appeals more to critics and cinephiles than do the general public? I suspect it is.

I called Hugo a fantasy after some consideration. Most people define a movie (or novel) as fantasy if it violates the laws of physics. Hugo merely violates the laws of probability. But its general magical tone makes it feel like a fantasy to me.

Fourteen-year-old Asa Butterfield plays the title character, an orphan living by his wits in a large Paris train station circa 1930. He keeps the clocks running, steals food, andhugo tries to stay unnoticed. Typical of young protagonists in Hollywood family fare, Hugo must contend with a comically inept authority figure (Sacha Baron Cohen as the station master) and a grumpy old man whose heart will inevitably melt (Ben Kingsley as a toy seller). And he is helped by a girl of approximately his age (Chloë Grace Moretz).

In other words, this Scorsese film bears little resemblance to Taxi Driver or Good Fellas. But then, neither does The Last Waltz, The Aviator, or The Last Temptation of Christ. People associate Scorsese with violent contemporary urban dramas–probably because those dominate his best work. But he’s made plenty of other types of films, as well.

Nevertheless, Hugo is his first family film, and his first in 3D. He uses the technology brilliantly to draw the audience into the universe of the story. Train tracks disappearing into the distance, labyrinth hallways and staircases, and individual snowflakes floating through the sky put you into the environment in a way that a flat movie could not.

And what an environment Scorsese creates and brings to life with his signature moving camera shots. The giant train station, with its cafes and stores and musicians, is a world onto itself. The people who work there form a community, and some even fall in love. It doesn’t seem like a bad place to live and work –even for an orphan stealing croissants and milk.

But Hugo is not a great Scorsese film, or a great children’s movie. It’s slow at times, and often predictable. The humor and the sentimentality sometimes conflict–especially when Cohen’s evil station master falls in love. I give it a B.

But Scorsese has a message for the children and parents coming to see Hugo. He wants to can teach them about the importance of film restoration and preservation.

The rest of this post contains some mild spoilers. I do not believe that reading them will hurt your enjoyment of the film, but you really hate even the mildest of spoilers, stop reading now.

Kingsley’s grumpy old man, who owns a small toy stall in the station, turns out to be an actual historical figure–Georges Méliès, the magician-turned-filmmaker who invented special effects and, arguably, narrative cinema. By the time we meet him in the movie, long after his studio died, he is forgotten and bitter–and won’t even allow his goddaughter to go to the movies.

Of course Hugo will make Méliès happy again, and help bring about a resurgence of interest in his work. Late the movie, Méliès tells the boy that "Happy endings only happen in the movies." Of course, this is a movie, and Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan provide everyone (even the station agent) with a very happy ending.

As is shown in the movie, the real Méliès was awarded a government honor in 1931. But I doubt the details were as joyful as they are here.

I enjoyed Hugo. I’d like to believe that children coming out of the theater will ask to see Méliès’ work and other silent films, and will learn the value of film restoration.

But I doubt it.

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