If, ten or twenty years ago, if one year ago even, one were to tell me that Martin Scorsese would make the feel-good family film of the 2011 holiday season, I would have probably laughed in their face and walked away, thinking them the biggest of fools. Of course now, after the release of the deliriously magical Hugo, I would have to track that quite clairvoyant person down and give them the most heartfelt of apologies.
Hugo, based on the novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret", is most definitely a departure for Mr. Scorsese. Setting aside his usual milieu of gangsters and fallen men, his dark palette of the machinery of night, the formidable director has entered the seeming realm of Spielberg and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. But even as much of a departure as it may seem to be, a PG-rated, 3D family-oriented fantasy film disguised as a wishful children's parable, full of desire and hope, peppered with moments of sheer sentimental cinematic joy, Hugo is actually pure Scorsese. From its gorgeous tracking shot opening to its use of community and space within the frame (the set is filled with a bustling world all its own) to its tear-inducing finale (when pictures of movies come to three-dimensional life, it is a blast of suppressed emotion), this film is indeed, contrary to any first appearances or perceived conventions, pure Scorsese.
Hugo, set in 1930's Paris, is the story of the aforementioned Hugo Cabret, an orphaned boy who secretly lives in the walls and catacombs of a Paris train station, caring for the station's clocks in the absence of his drunken uncle. Hugo, played by the wide-eyed Asa Butterfield, lives by his stealth and his wits. Stealing bits of food from the station's vendors, Hugo spends his days avoiding the station inspector, played broad, but with a surprising amount of restraint by Sacha Baron Cohen, and pocketing gears and gizmos from the station's toy shoppe in order to fix the mechanical man that he and his father were tinkering with before his father's sudden death. It is this mechanical man, this automaton, and the idea of making him work and therefore bringing a piece of his father back to life, that keeps Hugo going through his lonely days in the hidden nooks and crannies of the station.
But it is his interactions with the toy shoppe owner, a gruff and stern man known as Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), and the man's goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), that allow Hugo to enter a whole new world - a world of cinema. And this is where the movie truly becomes Scorsese territory. Playing out as an homage to the early days of cinema, Hugo, with its constant stream of cinematic homage, is in actuality the most heartfelt of pleas for the preservation of film - a cause very dear to the extremely cinephiliac Mr. Scorsese. The second half of the film switches gears as it were, and becomes about the saving of a soul - the soul of one of the great pioneers of cinema. Filmmaker Georges Méliès, who began as a magician on vaudeville before turning his eyes toward a then-new medium called cinema, would become the grandfather of sci-fi and fantasy moviemaking, and an icon of early cinema.
Méliès' seminal 1902 film, A Trip to the Moon, is considered today to be one of the greatest achievements of early cinema, and a precursor to and an influence on pretty much everything that came after it. Méliès would go on to make over 500 films in his career (less than a hundred survive today), but with the coming of World War I, and a new style of filmmaking now dominating the cinematic skyline, the once popular director would fade into the shadows of obscurity by 1914. Much of this film, though fantasy through and through, is actually based on fact. Méliès was discovered selling toys at the Montparnasse train station in Paris late in his life - forgotten by his once-adoring public, and by history itself - and brought back to the pantheon of cinema with a retrospective of his work in 1931. The great auteur would die in 1938, but he would leave in his rightly deserved position as an honoured hero of cinema.
Scorsese has brought the earliest moments of cinema, a cinema of seeming magic, back to a new generation of filmgoers and, in the most ironic of twists, has used the most technologically advanced equipment to do so. What James Cameron tried to do for the natural world in Avatar, Scorsese does do for the mechanical world in Hugo. Easily the best 3D movie ever made (he even makes the dust 3D!), Scorsese, one of the most outspoken advocates for the use of film (a medium that will be all but dead when studios go fully digital in 2013), has taken this technology and has used it to showcase all that will become lost in future generations. Hugo is both a hopeful and tragic story in this sense. This is a love story of a dying medium, made real by the use of its very executioner. Yet there is hope still.
Granted, one could argue that the film does toy with a cloying element that could be construed as a hinderance in moviemaking, but this is such a small complaint to quibble about. The fact that Scorsese is evoking, at least in part, the opulent and romantic cinematic spectacles of the director's youth, can easily explain off such unwarranted criticisms. And again, this film is about hope, and therefore must have some sense of romanticism in it. A Father, telling the children he has accompanied to the movie, all about the director Méliès, and their exuberant wishes to see more of his work, was a scene I overheard upon leaving the theater. This film is full of hope, and even if film dies out in this digital age, and we are left with the cold pixelized world of tomorrow, there are still those who will keep the love and desire and history alive for generations to come. [11/28/11]