If there’s one thing Hollywood knows how to do, it’s suck all the joy, magic and wonder out of children’s literature. Just take a look at recent adaptations and you’ll find a limp collection of dull, forgettable, featherlight or spectacularly bloated missteps. City of Ember, Percy Jackson and Eragon all drew from inventive and highly popular books and all fell well short of the mark. You can’t even see the mark from where Chris Weitz crashed the maniacally CGI’d The Golden Compass into the ground. Thank god they wrested the Harry Potter franchise from Chris Columbus when they did. But where these other films have failed, Hugo (based on Brian Selznick’s spectacular “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”) succeeds and there’s one reason for that: Martin Scorsese. Even if you know nothing about the book, it’s not hard to see why Scorsese chose this material for his first “kids movie.” (I’ll get to those quotation marks in a bit.) The story which appears to be about a lonely orphan boy Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the clock tower of a Parisian train station and meets a curmudgeonly innovator Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), quickly becomes a lesson in the early days of filmmaking. With it Scorsese, a well-known champion of film history and preservation, can gently and convincingly preach about the palliative, inspirational way in which film can help us connect with ourselves and with others. Oh yes, Uncle Marty’s proselytizing again. But he does it in such an enchanting way that you won’t mind one bit.
The question, and the one problem with the film, is the matter of who Scorsese is preaching to, exactly. Hugo has been met with overwhelmingly positive reviews but that would be from us, the film critics…Scorsese’s choir. In actuality, barring some early slapstick nonsense from Sascha Baron Cohen’s cartoonish Station Inspector and some mawkishly sentimental imagery from the book (we’re looking for a key that’s shaped like a heart and it will unlock…well…simply everything), the movie hardly resembles a kids film at all. This is due in large part to the remarkable performances that anchor the film and save it from becoming a visually rich, flaky Parisian pastry. As the intrepid, bookish Isabelle, Chloë Grace Moretz (that’s how she’s billed, I swear it) delivers with her customary aplomb and an only slightly wobbly British accent. But she is outmatched in every scene by the astonishingly vulnerable Asa Butterfield as Hugo. To be fair, Butterfield has an enormous advantage. This kid has the most remarkable eyes I have ever seen on film. Huge and icy blue, yet warm, they do half the work for him. Hugo is a wounded character (having lost his father and lived without affection or, it would appear, much food) but instead of pleading for our sympathy, Butterfield plays the character as proud, his astonishing blue peepers constantly flinching and darting under Moretz’s serene gaze. But when the emotional climax comes and those blue lamps flood, good luck keeping yours dry. Scorsese not only draws the best out of Butterfield and Moretz, but also surrounds them with the cream of the acting crop. The advantage of being Scorsese is you can ask phenomenal actors like Jude Law, Ray Winstone and Christopher Lee to appear in what are essentially bit parts. And they’ll say yes, because you’re Martin F*cking Scorsese. He even wrested some non-cartoonish emotion out of Sascha Baron Cohen. That’s movie magic right there.
But no matter how good the acting or how lush the visuals, (and they are, the art deco and nouveau designs of the 1931 Parisian train station are bathed in a perpetually golden hue), the question still remains: who is this movie for? My guess is that it’s for Scorsese himself, who is at once Hugo, the young boy, Méliès, the older filmmaker and René Tabard, film scholar and preservationist, portrayed warmly by Michael Stuhlbarg as a bushy browed homage to Scorsese. Because even when Hugo is not overtly about cinema, it is. Train station vignettes play out like a silent, slapstick comedy when viewed from Hugo’s distant perch in the clock tower. And when Hugo is overtly about film, that’s when Scorsese has all the fun; recreating Méliès famous, inventive movie magic tricks or splicing in famous scenes from early cinema. If you do take a child to see this, it may be the first time they see Harold Lloyd dangle from a clock face or Buster Keaton perched on a locomotive. And when those iconic images are later repeated in the action of the film, it will be as much a treat for them as it is for us, Scorsese’s choir. Because now they know what we know, our references are theirs. That’s the beauty of cinema, of the shared experience, of sitting in the dark with someone, listening to the inexorable, staccato tick tick tick of the film reel as time moves forward but also stops, forever preserved on celluloid to be revisited, remembered, and revered.
[ETA: This reviewer did not see the 3-D version of the film. Despite Scorsese’s belief that it is an artistic innovation to be embraced, it still makes her motion sick. She recommends you save your money and go 2-D.]