As a film buff, it’s surprising how few films focus on the history of the medium. Director Martin Scorsese sets to tell a kids tale, but one that showcases the early start of film. At times the movie Hugo is like a silent film, one lacking the silence of course, but in the presentation of characters, set-up and humor it could have easily been a movie from the 1920s. Fans of solid storytelling, film history, and children will enjoy the beautiful world of Hugo and his friends.
Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is a young orphaned boy living in the Paris train station. In between evading the child-hating Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), Hugo is entranced by a mysterious toy story owner (Ben Kingsley) and his granddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). When Hugo discovers the way to operate a mysterious robot, it’ll reveal secrets about his and the toy owner’s past.
I’m a huge silent film fan and found myself giddy at how many references there are to early film in Hugo. The movie emphasizes the work of Georges Melies and his eponymous A Trip to the Moon and there’s a delightful side trip Hugo and Isabelle take to see Harold Lloyd’s “Safety Last.” The kids in the audience, and some of the adults too, might not know these movies but Scorsese devotes a huge chunk of the movie to these films. It’s no secret the director is a staunch supporter of archiving classic cinema and his film is a loving ode to the medium. At times the film takes its cues from these films. Every side character has a story, mostly involving the majority of the films gags. A blossoming romance between two shop owners is interrupted by a dog, and the relationship between Inspector Gustav and shop owner Lisette (Emily Mortimer) borrows heavily from 1920s films not limited to Charlie Chaplin. The sets and world created is also highly detailed and evocative of the time period. There’s a depth to everything and at times the film seems almost steam punk in its presentation.
The story of Hugo is what kids will enjoy and there’s heart, action, and suspense without pandering to cheap gags and toilet humor. Hugo is a good kid put in a bad situation and it’s through the robot that he feels a piece of him will be found. There’s no weepy back-story on this father, although there are flashbacks, so Hugo is never a child with a chip on his shoulder. Butterfield is a great discovery in this movie. He’s sweet, vulnerable, and isn’t whiny like some child stars. Moretz is also a delight as the sweet Isabelle although there doesn’t seem to be much behind her character for the actress to delve into.
Ben Kingsley also soars as director Georges Melies. He’s a man whose better days have passed him by and sees the growing world of cinema. The life of Melies is a sad one as he’s mostly faded into obscurity with only the most die-hard film fans knowing his name. Kingsley gives a sad mask to the character and finds something in Hugo that makes him remember his past. Other performances including Cohen’s turn as an orphan hunter could have been villainous but he’s given an incredibly sweet love story to make him likeable.
The only issues with this film are in how deliberate the pace is. It takes a long time, over forty minutes it seems, before there’s any real movement to the story. You’re entertained with the characters in the station and Hugo, but it almost feels like a series of vignettes that makes you ask “What’s the plot?” The robot seems a taste minor in comparison to where the story ultimately goes, and it does almost feel like a red herring. If you can get past that the movie is fun, but if you go in cold on what it’s about like me it can feel plodding.
Hugo is more than meets the eye. Scorsese may not have guns or gangsters in this film but it’s a loving ode to cinema with some sweet performances. It’s nice to see a kid’s film that will entertain, educate, and doesn’t make your eyes bleed.