I really can’t remember the last time that I was moved to use the word “magical” in describing an entire film, but that is simply the best adjective for “Hugo,” the most wonderfully appealing family movie I’ve seen in a long time.
Based upon Brian Selznick’s bestseller titled “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” and directed by Academy Award winner Martin Scorcese, this marvelously filmed and superbly acted film should charm just about everyone regardless of age. Forget about “Alvin and the Chipmunks” because “Hugo” is everything a holiday movie should be and more.
The film is set in Paris, the year is 1931, and the hero of our tale is 13-year-old Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), whose father (Jude Law) was a clockmaker before his untimely death that left Hugo an orphan to be cared for by his alcoholic Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone). Uncle Claude was in charge of winding the massive clocks in the Gare Montparnasse, a huge train station, until he simply disappeared one day, and then Hugo took over the job of keeping the clocks running.
Hugo makes his home within the walls of the train station, and he manages to steal food from the vendors in the station. In addition to keeping the myriad gears of the clocks oiled and running smoothly, Hugo’s main project is the attempt to restore to working order an automaton that his father had been working on before he died. In order to obtain some of the parts he needs, Hugo steals various springs and gears from a toy store owned and operated by an old curmudgeon named Georges (Ben Kingsley). One of Hugo’s most prized possessions is a book of sketches his father left him, and Hugo believes it holds the key to fixing the automaton.
Although Hugo usually is very successful in stealing things from the toyshop, one day he becomes a bit careless, and Georges catches him in the act and takes his book of sketches from him. He threatens to burn the precious book unless Hugo agrees to work in the toyshop for him. Hugo really has no choice, and it is through his new relationship with Georges that he meets Isabelle (Chole Grace Moretz), George’s goddaughter, whom he and his wife have raised as their own.
Hugo opens up a whole world for Isabelle because she has led a very sheltered life and has spent much of it in the library. When Hugo realizes he can trust her, he shows her what his world inside the walls of the train station is like, and she vows to help him get his notebook back from her godfather and to help Hugo get the automaton working.
Isabelle soon learns that Hugo’s existence is constantly fraught with danger because the train station is patrolled by a Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) who, with the help of his Doberman, makes it his business to round up orphans and send them off to orphanages. But she also finds Hugo’s life terribly exciting, and when he takes her to a movie, he opens up for her a world she never knew existed.
As Isabelle and Hugo continue to work on the automaton, they discover that it has a very special message for Hugo, and this ultimately leads to a startling discovery about Georges and his past as a famous magician and filmmaker. This surprise is the major twist in the film, and so I won’t tell you who he is, but it makes everything come together beautifully.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association recently released its annual Golden Globe Nominations, and “Hugo” was nominated for Best Motion Picture –Drama, and Scorcese also received a nomination for best director. Because many consider the Globes as a predictor of the Academy Awards, it would not be surprising to see the film also receive some Oscar nominations, and whatever honors this film earns will be well deserved.
The film is beautifully photographed, and the opening scene is nothing short of spectacular. The camera shows an overhead shot of a train approaching the station, and then it zooms in on the people who are boarding or departing from trains and continues into the station until it comes to rest on one of the huge clocks overlooking the huge lobby. And peering out through one of clock’s numbers is Hugo. This scene effectively introduces us to Hugo’s unique world, and from here we go inside the clock to a maze of metal stairs and gears.
In addition to the superb cinematography, the film features some outstanding acting by its two young stars. In the film’s production notes, Scorcese explained why he chose Moretz and Butterfield for the parts of Isabelle and Hugo.
“I was seeing a few young actresses from England. Chloë came in, and she spoke with a British accent, and I thought she was from England as well. At that stage, we started reading actors in pairs for Hugo and Isabelle, and Asa and Chloë just looked right together. There were a couple of other actors, and we switched the pairs, but the looks weren’t right. Not only did they look right together, they sounded right together. They play off of each other very well, and they have very distinctive personalities, very different.”
The chemistry between Moretz and Butterfield is remarkable in such young performers. But they fit together perfectly, and it’s a real joy to watch them. In the production notes, both young stars offered interesting insight into their characters.
“Being 13-years-old, as the characters are, there’s always something that you want to find out,” Moretz said. “There’s always something that you‘re poking and prying, trying to figure out what‘s going on, or how something works. In this movie, Isabelle and Hugo are poking and prying at people.”
“You never know that much about him,” Butterfield said about Hugo. “Loads of traumatic things have happened to him; his father has died; his mother’s died. And he ends up living with his Uncle in a train station, doing a man‘s job. And then his Uncle leaves and doesn‘t come back. By the time the story starts, all that’s happened to him, and he’s just left alone with this robotic figure, the automaton. So he’s quite to himself until he meets Isabelle, and then that starts getting him out of his shell.”
As I watched “Hugo,” I couldn’t help thinking about the film “Rear Window,” that great Hitchcock masterpiece where Jimmy Stewart’s character watches all the people in his apartment building going about their daily lives without knowing someone is spying on them. From his vantage point high about the floor of the massive train station, Hugo also spies on the people who work at the station, and, just as the apartment complex in “Rear Window” became a character in the film, so does the train station in “Hugo.”
“Hugo” (Yes, it gets that elusive 10.) is a testament to the kind of quality films Hollywood is capable of producing when the filmmakers manage to sublimate their seemingly overwhelming desire to churn out movies rife with blood, explosions, gun battles, car chases, and gross humor. This is family entertainment at its finest, and it’s a wonderful Christmas gift from Tinseltown to all moviegoers. Merry Christmas!