‘Hugo” is in 3-D, rated PG in the United States and features two 12-year-olds traipsing around a 1930s Parisian train station. All the ingredients for a cozy Disney picture, but in actual fact this is a Martin Scorsese movie, which picked up five Oscars at last weekend’s Academy Awards.
Yes, the same man who gave the world “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas” — and more recently the painstakingly elaborate horror movie “Shutter Island” — has ventured out onto a long and foreign limb. No psychotic gangsters blowing brains out by the half dozen, no obsessive boxers dieting and rebounding. This is his first 3-D family entertainment picture, and from the opening sequence (a boy watching various vignettes of a train station unfold from behind enormous clocks embedded into the brick walls), it’s designed to enchant, captivate and wow the daylights out of parents and kids alike. In a nice way.
Yet while the book on which it is based, Brian Selznick’s acclaimed “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” is considered suitable for readers aged 9-12, it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine the average preteen and teen crowd thronging the theaters unless they happen to be enrolled in film school while having a deep knowledge of Charles Dickens and European antiques. Clocking in at a little over two hours, “Hugo” goes on like a French meal partaken in a dark and intimate restaurant. Each dish is a jewel to behold: veritable artworks of calories and tradition. But sit a 14-year-old down in front of such a dish and he or she could collapse from convenience-store ready-meal withdrawal. And the 3-D glasses ain’t gonna help either.
Which brings us to what “Hugo” is all about. This is a densely instructive essay on the early history of special effects in cinema, as well as an ode to filmmakers. Or more to the point, an ode to Scorsese himself and probably James Cameron, who’s apparently raving over “Hugo’s” deployment of 3-D.
After generating shock and controversy throughout his 40-year career, Scorsese has created a veritable lounge of a movie, where he and great directors can relax and wax nostalgic. And he does this as only Scorsese can, with unlimited resources and unwavering dedication to get what he wants to get, at the exact moment that he wants to get it. Timing is of the essence in “Hugo,” and as one character stresses, “Time … It’s the only thing that matters in life.”
The protagonist is 12-year-old Hugo (Asa Butterfield, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”), who inadvertently finds himself living behind the clocks of a Parisian train station after the death of his clock-maker dad (Jude Law). Sustaining himself on pilfered croissants, Hugo keeps the clocks going and watches station life unfold from behind the walls.
His nemesis is the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), whose personal mission is to capture orphans found loitering in the station. None of the adults around Hugo are kind or helpful — and even more menacing than the inspector is Monsieur Georges (Ben Kingsley), who keeps a toy booth and behaves as if the entire world (Hugo especially) is conspiring to dent his pride. Still, Hugo succeeds in making friends with Georges’ perky goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), appearing throughout with a beret perched atop her head, quoting Christina Rossetti poems and being wondrously charming.
Hugo and Isabelle are ultimately not what the film is about; they’re cogs in a complicated set of machinery that works only to the exact specifications drawn up by Scorsese.
It turns out that Georges is really Georges Méliès, the real-life French illusionist turned film director who pioneered the use of optical effects and made hundreds of movies before disappearing from the scene after World War I. Georges fumes against the march of time and the relentless, here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of the film industry. His tearful soliloquy is moving, but more than likely, it reflects Scorsese’s own take on Hollywood’s film-industry logic and the ever-shortening cycle of the “latest” in CGI technology.
“Hugo” is also a tribute to an era when machines commanded respect and were designed to trigger thought, instead of halting it in the name of convenience. Interestingly, the word “work” is used repeatedly, not only to describe the functioning of machines and human labor but also as a philosophical tool to explore the meaning of existence. Hugo states that everyone has some particular “work” to do in life, and this serves as both salvation and justification. That may echo the voice of Scorsese, who at 70 seems to have hit upon profundity in the art of illusion.