Martin Scorsese’s mastery of the medium is evident in every frame of his beguiling adaptation of Brian Selznick’s children’s book, which is also the director’s love letter to the art of cinema itself. “Hugo” is such a pleasure to watch from beginning to end that it even justifies the decision to film it in 3D, which Scorsese manages to employ as part of the artistic process rather than a mere afterthought.
The title character is a boy (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the Paris train station in the 1920s, secretly maintaining its massive clock from his perch in the mechanism’s huge overhead gearbox. He cadges food via sorties to the floor, during which he must avoid capture at the hands of the officious Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who specializes in sending parentless waifs off to the orphanage. Hugo’s past is gradually revealed: his beloved father (Jude Law), a clockmaker, died in a fire, and he was taken in by his gruff, drunken uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), the actual station clock-keeper, who made the boy his apprentice. And after Claude disappeared, Hugo simply took over the job.
Hugo has one memento of his former life with his father: a derelict automaton rescued from a museum that the two tried to rebuild together. Now the boy is obsessed with fixing it, believing that when it’s operative, the figure—a gleaming silver man holding a pen in its hand—will write him a message from his deceased parent. To acquire the nuts, bolts, springs and other parts needed, however, he has to purloin them, and his main source is the toy booth run by an elderly curmudgeon named Georges (Ben Kingsley). But the old fellow catches the boy and takes away the notebook he inherited from his father, whose notes and diagrams he’d been using in his work of refurbishment. In trying to retrieve the book, which affects Georges deeply, he’s befriended by the man’s vivacious stepdaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who looks upon the boy’s mission as an adventure and becomes his accomplice.
Their investigations ultimately uncover the fact that Georges is Georges Melies, the pioneering, visionary master of filmmaking whose highly imaginative work fell into disfavor in the aftermath of World War I. He lost his studio, was forced to sell off his hundreds of films as scrap, and now lives as an embittered and forgotten figure, eking out a life for himself, his wife (Helen McCrory) and Isabelle on the meager income from the toy booth. But Hugo and Isabelle revive his spirit by introducing him to a professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) who reveres Melies’ work and helps to orchestrate a revival of his films—and his reputation. Hugo, meanwhile, finds a new family—and it’s revealed exactly how the automaton was instrumental in arranging the happy ending which, as Georges observes, happens more often on screen than in life.
From a historical perspective the trajectory of “Hugo” does follow that of Melies’ life from fame to obscurity to vindication late in life. But what brings his re-emergence about here is, of course, fictional, a fable designed to celebrate both the idea of family and the joy of the cinematic experience. And in the story of Hugo Chabret it offers a lovely recasting of the sort of yarn that Dickens told in “Oliver Twist” and “David Copperfield,” with the solemn-faced Butterfield a fine young hero whose courage and pluck earn him a new start in life. Like Dickens, moreover, the tale offers an array of colorful supporting characters—not only the Inspector, whom Cohen plays as a Clouseau-like figure (the debt to Peter Sellers is a nod to another screen figure who moved from triumph to failure and back to triumph) redeemed when florist Lisette (Emily Mortimer) takes a shine to him; elderly bookseller Labisse (Christopher Lee), whose gift of a volume on Robin Hood to Hugo is both a nod to the boy’s past and something that spurs him to further effort; and chubby Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths), whose attempted advances to dotty Madame Emilie (Frances de la Tour) are repeatedly interrupted by her overprotective dog.
And there’s Kingsley, of course, who invests Melies with the hardness touched with vulnerability, along with a sense of bruised dignity, the character demands. He and McCrory create a touching bond, though historical purists may protest that in actuality Georges’ wife had died in 1913. But that hardly matters to the tribute to invention of some of the fundamental techniques of filmmaking—including the first “special effects”—that the last act of “Hugo” represents. The flashback recreations of his studio, showing the creation of some of his best-known scenes, are marvelous expressions of the dreamlike quality he sought in his work. (The fact that he never moved beyond these cinematic equivalents of the conjuring tricks he once performed onstage to the kind of cinematic storytelling represented by clips from non-Melies items used by Scorsese—a segment from Harold Lloyd’s “Safety Last,” brief snatches of Keaton and Chaplin—doesn’t negate the significance of his contribution.)
And Scorsese revels in the possibilities of the modern medium Melies helped to pioneer. Like all of the director’s picture, “Hugo” is impeccably made. The visuals are simply ravishing—kudos to production designer Dante Ferretti, art directors David Warren, Rod McLean, Luca Tranchino, Christian Huband, Stuart Rose and Martin Foley, set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo and costume designer Sandy Powell, as well as ace cinematographer Robert Richardson and the large effects team headed by Robert Legato, Joss Williams and Ben Grossmann. Together they fashion an appropriately magical atmosphere for Hugo’s story, with the CGI landscapes of early-twentieth century Paris brilliantly carried off.
Scorsese even employs the 3D format in a way that turns it from a detriment to at least a partial benefit, by using snowfall and locomotive steam, as well as the more obvious machines and close-ups (of dogs as well as people) to enhance the mood rather than simply go for obvious “gotcha” moments. (Of course, the glasses still darken the images, but that’s a tradeoff you can at least respect as an artistic choice this time.) Editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s efforts can’t be overlooked, either, in terms of both the film’s generally stately but smooth pacing and the montages of Melies clips that act as the culmination of the last act. Howard Shore, meanwhile, contributes an unobtrusively supportive score.
Scorsese has said that he made “Hugo” partially as a film that at last his young daughter, understandably barred from his other pictures, could see and enjoy. But it proves to be a gift to filmgoers of all ages—as well as a beautiful tribute by a great filmmaker to the art to which he’s devoted his life. It could serve as a fitting capstone to his career—if one didn’t hope that there are still plenty more where this one came from.