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'Hugo' review - A marvelous film about the magic of cinema

Hugo is a marvelous film about the magic of cinema.

If you’re skeptical, you’re forgiven, as this is a jarring departure from Director Martin Scorsese’s usual material. But what it lacks in gangsters and bullets it makes up for in passion and spectacle. Though billed as a movie for children (and certainly entertaining enough for them), Hugo is a labour of love, and an homage to the visual pleasures of cinema that will delight audiences of all ages and tastes.

It takes place in 1931, within Paris’s sprawling Montparnasse train station. Here, 12-year-old orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) works tirelessly and invisibly, winding and maintaining the station’s clocks. Abandoned by his alcoholic uncle, he lives in solitude within the walls, peeking out at crowds through the clock-faces, and venturing out occasionally either to sneak into movies, or to thieve whatever small, mechanical brick-a-brack he can find—springs, rods, etc.—in the hope of restoring an old automaton belonging to his father (Jude Law). Supposedly, this automaton is capable of prose (believe it or not, such a machine did actually exist in the 19th century), and young Hugo is convinced that, once fixed, it will scribble out a message from his dear, departed dad. Trouble is, he’s missing the heart-shaped key needed to wind the machine up. Fortunately, he is caught stealing by Georges (Ben Kingsley), the toy shop-owner, whose goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) just so happens to wear this key around her neck. They meet, fall in love, and it isn’t long before they spring the automaton back to life.


Surprisingly, the automaton draws rather than writes, and recreates a still from a profoundly classical piece of cinema universally recognizable to both film students and cinephiles the world over - Le Voyage Dans La Lune (1902). As it turns out, Isabelle’s godfather is none other than the real-life director of this film, Georges Méliès, and he created the automaton during his days as a magician and inventor.

Although Hugo sounds convoluted, it unfolds with a remarkable grace and simplicity. And even though contemporary audiences probably don’t care much for the mythology of Georges Méliès, they can certainly appreciate the spirit with which he created his films. His stories were silly—even stupid—but, as a magician, he was one of the first to understand film’s potential as a visual medium, capable of illusion, wonderment, and grandiosity in ways that stage shows simply weren’t.

In his approach to 3D technology, Scorsese successfully mimics Méliès, and pays tribute to a bygone era when cinema was purely spectacular. The opening shot, for example, establishes the romantic Parisian cityscape before swooping into the train station and taking us through the guts of its clockwork. Hugo Cabret’s world is an intricate labyrinth of gears, ladders, and pulleys—a mechanical cornucopia—and Scorsese employs 3D not to follow trends or to grab a quick buck, but to actually immerse us as deeply into this world as possible. Maybe this is more an aesthetic ploy than an artistic one, but it’s breathtaking, bewildering, and truly exciting none the same.


The performances are excellent all around, especially from Kingsley (he must be used to carrying historically-loaded characters on his back) who employs the humanism and depth necessary to convey the heartbreaking trajectory of Méliès’ career. Sacha Baron Cohen, who seems destined for greatness at this rate, provides some charmingly comic relief in the form of station inspector Gustav. And Butterfield hits his mark, depicting Hugo as perpetually wide-eyed, but never stupid.

Méliès made over 500 films in his lifetime, but failed to grasp their artistic and historical significance, allowing the French army to seize most of them during World War I so that they could be melted down into boot heels. The fact that human eyes will never again see many of those films is lamentable, so let’s consider Hugo a silver lining. Méliès’ tragedy has provided Scorsese with opportunity, and the end result is nothing short of magical.

Rating:  (Awesome)

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