THE STORY – Orphaned and alone except for an uncle, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in the walls of a train station in 1930s Paris. Hugo’s job is to oil and maintain the station’s clocks, but to him, his more important task is to protect a broken automaton and notebook left to him by his late father (Jude Law). Accompanied by the goddaughter (Chloë Grace Moretz) of an embittered toy merchant (Ben Kingsley), Hugo embarks on a quest to solve the mystery of the automaton and find a place he can call home.
THE CAST – Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer & Jude Law
THE TEAM – Martin Scorsese (Director) & John Logan (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 126 Minutes
Martin Scorsese is one of the most celebrated filmmakers of all time – and for good reason. He’s managed to stay relevant for over six decades, and unlike so many of his New Hollywood peers, he’s continued to hone his craft and refine his style in ways that connect with both critics and audiences. Scorsese will always be associated with the crime genre, given the cultural cache of hits like “Goodfellas” (1990), “The Departed” (2006), and “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013). Still, the films that diverge from this template prove to be the most revelatory in terms of the director’s obsessions.
“Hugo” (2011) is a perfect example. In terms of narrative, aesthetics, and geography, the film couldn’t be further away from the mean streets of New York. It scans like something Scorsese’s buddy, Steven Spielberg, would be better suited to direct, given its prepubescent characters and whimsical presentation. I’d go as far as to say that “Hugo” is an outlier among other Scorsese outliers, providing neither the spiritual torment of films like “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) and “Silence” (2016) nor the satire of films like “The King of Comedy” (1983) and “After Hours” (1985). Is it truly a 1-of-1? Well, not exactly. “Hugo” does have a place within Scorsese’s filmography, but part of what makes the film so effective is that its placement isn’t made clear until its final act.
But first, the plot. “Hugo” is about an orphan named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who lives in the walls of a train station in 1930s Paris. He spends most of his time oiling and maintaining the station’s clocks, but his primary goal is to restore an automaton left to him by his late father (Jude Law). Hugo eventually crosses paths with an irate toy merchant, Georges (Ben Kingsley), and his goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), who agrees to help him on his quest.
It could all be very twee in the wrong hands, but screenwriter John Logan does an excellent job grounding the main characters. Hugo has a colorful imagination and a propensity for causing mayhem (especially for the station inspector), but there is a tremendous sense of loss that informs his actions. The same goes for Georges, whose bitterness towards the world can barely be contained in the first act but is gradually softened up by the wonderment of the children around him. The performances work in tandem with Logan’s script. Butterfield and Moretz have proven that they can still deliver the goods as adults, but here, at fourteen years old, they are revelatory. Their chemistry is charming as it is natural, and Butterfield’s plea to be set free when the station inspector catches him is genuinely affecting.
Equally effective is the cinematography of Robert Richardson. He and Scorsese had previously evoked the visual style of the early 20th century in “The Aviator” (2004), where they used two and three-strip Technicolor to emphasize reds and blues. They employ a similar tactic for “Hugo,” where the pale blues that emanate throughout the train station (further highlighted by the constant billowing of smoke) are meant to evoke the Autochrome color process that the Lumière brothers pioneered. The Autochrome coloring is both otherworldly and familiar, which is furthered by the use of 3D cameras.
Scorsese had never used 3D technology before “Hugo,” but he felt that embracing modern techniques would be appropriate given the style and subject matter of the film. The propulsive energy the director is famous for is subsequently given a supercharge, especially during sequences in which Hugo is up in the clock tower. Combining the 3D technology with the visual effects employed throughout makes for a visually sumptuous experience that’s incredibly distinct from Scorsese and Richardson’s other collaborations. Unsurprisingly, “Hugo” won Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects as a result.
However, these flourishes would amount to little more than a creative exercise were it not for the larger story that comes into focus. Hugo’s quest to fix the automaton leads to him discovering that Georges is actually Georges Méliès, a pioneering filmmaker who left the industry after declaring bankruptcy during the 1900s. It functions as an interesting story development for those unaware of Méliès (if he were fictional, the execution and the concept would keep it engaging). Still, for those aware of cinema history, it’s an ingenious bit of mythmaking that solidifies the film in the larger conversation of Scorsese’s work.
Few directors have been more committed to the preservation of cinema than Scorsese, as evidenced by the numerous documentaries he’s made on the subject. “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies” (1995) and “A Letter to Elia” (2010) are essential texts, as is “My Voyage to Italy” (1999). By using the artifice of a children’s story, however, Scorsese manages to fuse the mass appeal of his narrative features with the historical insight of his documentaries, effectively making “Hugo” the perfect pivot point between these two camps.
It’s a point I grow more and more impressed with over time. The final act of “Hugo,” which recounts Méliès’ fall from grace and culminates with the rediscovery of his work, is some of the most heartwarming material in the entire Scorsese canon. He rarely allows himself to be so wholesome, given that he’s usually dealing with morally compromised situations, but here, he gets a chance to take his passion for the art form – a subtext in all of his films – and make it text. How can you not be won over?
I have a few gripes with “Hugo,” like the repetition of story beats and the slightly overlong runtime (the film stalls a bit before the Méliès reveal), but its message is so lovely, and its execution is so precise that it’s easy to overlook them. It will never be near the top of the list of Scorsese’s masterpieces, but hidden away, as a breath of fresh air between the gangster epics and the examinations of faith, feels just right.