4 out of 5 stars
Starring: Asa Butterfield
‘Hugo' seemed like the last kind of movie Martin Scorsese would attempt to tackle at this state in his esteemed career. Scorsese, of course, has great range as a filmmaker, directing crime dramas, period pieces, psychological thrillers, and documentaries. Is a 3-D family adventure in the director's comfort zone though? In a surprising turn, not only does "Hugo" succeed as family entertainment, but it is also possibly Scorsese's best picture to personify his own love for the cinema.
Asa Butterfield plays the title character of Hugo, an orphaned boy who lost his clock-making father in a museum fire. Attempting to dodge the local orphanage, Hugo lives in the walls of a railway station in Paris where he operates the clocks. Hugo manages to salvage one of his father's possessions, an automaton with the appearance of something out of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis." Hugo is close to fixing the automaton, but is missing a heart-shaped key to make it fully functional.
Chloe Grace Moretz is one of the most diverse young actresses working in movies today, playing a superhero with a vile vocabulary, a vampire eternally trapped in a juvenile state, and the wise little sister of a moping Joseph Gordon Levitt. Here she's quite good as Isabella, Hugo's endearing friend who helps him to bring his automaton to life. Their trials eventually lead them on a path that connects a pioneering filmmaker named Georges Méliès to Isabella's godfather, a toy store owner played by Ben Kingsley. This is when the movie takes an interesting turn, mixing historical figures with fable as Hugo and Isabella attempt to revive the career of a silent movie artist.
"Hugo" is as gorgeous as any movie you're likely to see this year. Scorsese paints a world that encompasses the real 1930s' Paris and still manages to feel like something out of a dream. There's a miraculous shot towards the beginning of the film that transitions between the inside of a working clock and the hyper streets of Paris. It is a wonder to follow Hugo as he runs through his home composed of moving clock cogs, a massive pendulum swinging back and forth, and eternal chambers behind the walls of a train station. Beautifully visualized and brilliantly shot, the universe of "Hugo" is one I will not be forgetting anytime soon.
One thing that didn't entirely work for me in "Hugo" was the film's supporting characters, which includes Emily Mortimer as a cute flower girl, Christopher Lee as a librarian, and Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour as two flirting civilians. I suppose that these characters are supposed to embody one of the film's themes of broken people trying to find a place to fit into the world. However, I felt that they just meandered from the main plot. There's also an unfriendly station inspector, played by the talented Sacha Baron Cohen, who is bent on seizing Hugo. The character starts off basically being a cartoon, but is slowly given some redeeming values to make him more human. While it's ultimately a good performance, watching Cohen chase Hugo around the train station can get pretty repetitive. As great as "Hugo" is at times, the material with most of these supporting characters can cause it to lag. This is really only about 15 minutes of an otherwise very engaging achievement though.
I'm not sure if "Hugo" will satisfy certain children that prefer their movies full of hectic energy and loud noises. But "Hugo" isn't merely a children's movie as some of the trailers might suggest. It's a film intended for anybody who appreciates the art of movies and their rich history. "Hugo" is a fabulous recall to classic silent pictures from over a century ago when you had to paint a film frame by frame if you wanted it in color. There are several dialog-free sequences in "Hugo" that evoke the essence of a silent picture, relying on the audience to breathe in the film's wonderful atmosphere. At the center of this tribute to the cinema are two great performances from some of our best young actors and the relentless passion of a legendary director.