“Maybe that’s why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do… Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose… it’s like you’re broken.”
I love Martin Scorsese. He might be the greatest film maker living and working today. He’s definitely my favourite film maker living and working today, or ever. And while I liked Hugo when it came out a few years ago, I always felt like I didn’t give it enough attention at the time. It didn’t stick with me, and because I’m a super fan, I blamed myself, not the movie. Usually this blog is all about movies I’ve watched for the first time, but I’m making a rare exception here, because Scorsese is the best.
With a mother (presumably) killed in the Great War, young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives with his clock making father (Jude Law) in 1920s Paris. But because kids can’t become heroes in movies without first becoming orphans, his dad dies in a museum fire and Hugo is left in the care of is drunkard uncle (Ray Winstone). Living within the walls of a grand railway station, Hugo does his uncle’s job of keeping the many clocks running, while his uncle abandons him to go drink.
Constantly trying to avoid the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), Hugo steals a little food to survive, and the occasional wind up toy from a small shop in the train station, run by Ben Kinglsey as George. Hugo needs the parts from the toys to repair his automaton, an extraordinary mechanical man that he sees as the last link to his father. Soon, Hugo meets George’s god daughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), and the two become friends as their adventures start to show there may be more to George than Isabelle ever knew, including a connection to Hugo’s automaton.
Hugo is a movie built on clockwork. Not just the literal clockwork that fills Hugo’s life via his oppressive job, his fathers’ profession and his attempts to repair the many gears of the mechanical man. The entire world of this movie is built on clockwork. There’s the train station, where the hordes of people all seem to move in automated perfection, until one person is out of step, and the whole thing grinds to a halt.
There’s the Station Inspector’s leg brace, a piece of machinery to help use his permanently damaged leg, until it seizes up and the metallic squeak embarrasses him in front of his dream girl. In flashbacks to the birth of cinema, we see the meticulous work and absolute precision of directors to make amazing effects, even before the concept of special effects had even been defined.
In the opening minutes, as the camera sores over a computer generated 1920s Paris, then into the train station and we see real live humans for the first time, my first thought was that the effects already looked a little dated, just three years after Hugo’s release. But by the time that single, long shot had finished, I realised that this movie isn’t going for realism. This movie is going for a hyper, movie look. The colours are brighter, the lines are sharper, the costumes, sets and props are all costumes, sets and props. This isn’t a real world, this is a movie world.
Ben Kingsley is great, but that should surprise no one. At the time, Moretz already had three or four high profile performances under her belt and had delivered on the lot, so her getting this right didn’t shock me either. But Asa Butterfield in the title role was an awesome surprise. I don’t think I’ve seen him before this movie or after, but his work in Hugo is way better than anyone his age should be capable of. The heartbreak when his father dies, the anger when being accused of being a thief, the growing crush on Isabelle, the joy he finds at the end… Butterfiled sells the shit out of each and every emotional beat Hugo has to play.
I remember when Hugo came out, there was a lot of talk about how out of character it was for Martin Scorsese to make a kids’ movie. While it spends much of its running time following two young kids on a grand adventure, and while it doesn’t have any sex, violence or bad language, I don’t see it a s a kids’ movie. For starters, it’s a tribute to vintage cinema, and I don’t know who many children are interested in the early days of silent film. A tribute that’s so close to Scorsese’s heart, at one stage we see a silent era cowboy fire his six shooter directly at the camera, a shot Scorsese directly ripped off with the final shot of Goodfellas where Joe Pesci’s Tommy shoots directly into the camera to start the end credits. Scorsese paying homage to his own homage paying… That’s some meta shit.
Secondly, Hugo and Isabelle might get more screen time, but the story of Hugo is George Melies’. He’s the character who gets the big emotional pay off, he’s the character who gets the most complex arc, and he’s the character who gets the most development. Hugo may gain a family, but George gains a purpose in life.
There’s no one working today better equipped than Martin Scorsese to make a movie that’s a tribute to movies. He’s spent the last four decades redefining cinema while also paying tribute to all the movies that inspired him to become a film maker in the first place. As a fun kids’ adventure, Hugo is infectiously charming. As a history lesson and tribute to film, it’s infectiously heartfelt and genuine.