The saddest thing about growing up, is how hardened and apathetic we become. The more time that passes, the more we see – and the more we see, the more we believe we’ve seen it all before. It’s a sad fate for us as adults, when you consider how we begin our lives as children of curiosity and wonder. In those early days, we can fall hard for so very many things, and find endless hours of joy.
This change in attitude affects who we spend our time with, where we choose to wander, and indeed – how we watch our movies. Martin Scorsese understands this hardening that comes with age, and with HUGO, wants to remind us what it was to be young…and how we once fell in love with the wonder of motion pictures.
Our titular hero is Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield). As a boy, his father was tragically killed, leaving him an orphan. But before he died, his father imparted a few valuable things to young Hugo. For starters, he taught him enough about being a clockmaker, that Hugo becomes a pretty good one – good enough to keep all the clocks in a Paris train station running on time. Beyond that, he also left Hugo an Automatron: a robot that seems a few springs and gears away from being fixed. What it will do once it’s fixed is anyone’s guess.
As Hugo tries to avoid detection – especially from the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) – he comes to the attention of a toy maker whose shop is in the station (Ben Kingsley). He seems very private, and is especially perplexed by the notebook Hugo carries with schematics on the Automatron. He’s so perplexed, that he steals it and destroys it. However, he can’t turn his back on young Hugo…so he offers him a job at his stand building and repairing toys.
As Hugo gets used to being his new role, he finds himself drawn to The Toymaker’s niece Isabelle (Chloe Moretz). She has the spark of Wendy darling and Pipi Longstocking rolled into one, and shares Hugo’s fascination with the world at large. However, she is deeply perplexed by her uncle’s obsession with Hugo’s notebook, and wants to help him reclaim it. Soon, the two young souls find themselves sharing their life passions. She introduces him to the world of literature, many of which she is able to borrow from the station bookstore. He introduces her to the world of cinema, delighting in the antics of Harold Lloyd.
Strangely though, her uncle isn’t fussed about Isabelle going to the movies. The search for the reason will send the two children on a journey of discovering what makes the heart and imagination truly tick.
HUGO is possibly best summed-up as a motion picture faery tale. It draws inspiration from THE WIZARD OF OZ and PETER PAN and overlays them on 20th century Paris. It takes the childhood fascination with those sorts of stories, and uses them like tinker-toys to build its wonderful story. Specifically, it builds a story about being inspired and believing in magic. It’s a story we fall hard for thanks to our protagonist – a kid whose expression makes you want to start sentences with the words “Yes Virginia…”.
The knee-jerk reaction is to call HUGO a Scorsese plea for film preservation, and I certainly cannot dispute that. For years, Scorsese – a man who sees the entire world at 24 frames per second – has been tirelessly working to not only preserve and restore the cinematic treasures of years gone by, but also to educate new generations on these stories and the influence they’ve had. It’s a cinefile-turned-cinema god’s way of giving back. So to helm an entire film about one of one of the early masters might seem like Father Marty stepping up to the pulpit.
However, what those early films contained, and what this film builds upon, is that youthful sense of wonder. It’s not looking to amuse the entire class of second graders the way that Buzz Lightyear can. What it wants to do is inspire those one or two second graders that are fascinated by the extraordinary. The kids who want more than just video games and TiVo. It wants to inspire the next generation of filmmakers and storytellers, and it does so by having one master tell a fairy tale based around another master. It’s not “Martin Scorsese’s Kid Friendly Film”, it’s “Martin Scorsese’s Kid Friendly Film”. He believes that out in the world are kids as in love with movies like he was, and this is his gift to them.
Since the resurgence of 3-D, I’ve been waiting to see what some of the master directors could do with it. Giving Scorsese this shiny new toy is very much an exercise in what’s possible. Few other working directors can move a camera the way that he does, and giving him the extra element to work with is a tool he uses well. The film allows us to swoop, zip, and slide all around the train station. It causes snow to fall before our eyes and steam to swirl in front of our face. It creates some beautiful depth and makes for a cheeky echo to the talk of early audiences’ reaction to the motion picture. I’m not sure if Scorsese will ever make another 3-D film, but if he does, I’ll happily fork over the extra cash.
What HUGO wants us to remember most, and what I loved about it so much, is that there was a time where movies weren’t out to make moviemakers rich. There was a time where the biggest innovators were artists and magicians, and the limits of what was possible were seemingly non-existent. In the film, the toymaker claims that the world grew cynical…far too jaded by the real-life horrors they had witnessed to be amused by his mere trifles anymore. I wonder what he would have thought of the cynical business filmmaking would become, where his trifles would likely be considered “unmarketable”.
At their best, movies are the beautiful hybrid of physics, imagination, and magic…and I’d like to hope that for some out there, that they combine to create new volumes of faery tales.