In this latest and suddenly tender chapter of his career, Martin Scorsese pulls off quite the feat when he steps outside his comfort zone and finds something so, well, comforting. Known for making violent movies about violent men wrestling with demons and facing conflict by staring down either the barrel of a gun or a clenched fist (or maybe both), Scorsese once more tries something different (past comfort zone exits like The Last Temptation of Christ and The King of Comedy are fantastic highlights of his filmography) and comes up with the sweet and joyful family-friendly fantasy Hugo. Originally titled The Invention of Hugo Cabret and adapted from Brian Selznick's book that bears the longer title, the very cinematic Hugo is a touching ode to the birth of cinema and the magic that erupted on celluloid more than a century ago.
It's also a way of celebrating cinema of the present, as Scorsese employs 3D technology for the first time in his career. And after a seemingly endless string of disappointments stemming from bad 3D movie viewings (I was beginning to wonder if I was even seeing most 3D presentations as intended, so often did the images appear almost flat to me), Scorsese delivers a delightful visual experience that uses the extra dimension as a gently engaging invitation to enter Hugo's unique world. It's winter in 1930s Paris and recently orphaned Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives within the clockwork of the sprawling Paris train station. The setting allows Scorsese to open his movie with an exquisite tour of the station and he makes full use of the 3D technology with smooth tracking shots that create a lovely sense of virtual depth.
Scorsese and 3D sound as odd a pair as Scorsese and family flicks, but by the time Hugo has released us from its charming spell, these previously farfetched combinations seem cozily complementary. Scorsese's genius may be applied to an unexpected genre here, but the movie still buzzes with the eccentric energy of a filmmaker whose passion and ambition are cradled by stunning storytelling prowess. He captures the wonder of a child's imagination, as well as the fear of loneliness that ironically stings protagonist Hugo within the grand walls of the bustling train station. He is surrounded by people, but the constant independent activity serves only to remind Hugo how alone he really is. His only companion is an incomplete automaton, a metal being whose mechanical innards power its ability to write.
Having inherited the intriguing object from his late father (Jude Law, in a brief and almost unnecessary appearance), Hugo now sees the eventual completion of the automaton as a way to unlock its secrets and hopefully receive a message from his dad. Thus begins the mystery portion of the movie, which unfolds rather quickly as Hugo meets train station frequenter and fellow kid Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) and the pair soon figure out how to get the automaton to perform its meaningful task. It's all very convenient at this point, but the simplicity of this plot portion eventually makes sense because Hugo's journey is not so much about getting the automaton fired up and ready to go as it is about deciphering the automaton's iconic message.
A single illustration courtesy of the automaton leads Hugo and Isabelle to uncover the truth about George Méliès (Ben Kingsley), the celebrated pioneer of cinema whose groundbreaking contributions to movies at the beginning of the 20th century earned him the telling title of "Cinemagician." Suddenly, before our very eyes, Hugo the movie about the orphan boy transforms into a film history lesson and even a treatise about the importance of film preservation. It's a daring and delightful direction to take the movie in and Scorsese's excitement for this development cannot be contained. It isn't difficult to imagine how much fun he must have had re-enacting scenes from the making of Méliès' imaginative movies. The sheer joy of watching the creation of cinema in its infancy is infectious.
Hugo's homage to cinema as magic and the stuff that dreams are made of is so sweetly sincere and so adoringly appropriate for a family movie intended to inspire and enchant children. It's what elevates Hugo beyond a merely attractive picture with likable kids. It gives the movie an identity that is personal and powerful. It provides a vessel through which Scorsese can channel his youthful passion for film history. The list of accomplishments that can be attributed to this loving aspect of the movie is long and wonderful, as this chunk of the storyline is easily Hugo's greatest strength.
It's all enough to keep the movie buoyant during its few and mostly minor missteps. Random asides involving characters within the train station are barely charming and usually unnecessary, if not entirely distracting. Sacha Baron Cohen plays a bumbling station inspector whose favourite pastime is snatching up kids and sending them off to the orphanage. Cohen's character is present to provide some basic run-of-the-mill conflict that often involves chasing Hugo through the station or letting his Doberman take care of the situation. That Hugo needs some sort of opposition to fabricate a sense of danger in his everyday routine is not unexpected, but the villain is just silly and sometimes sadly subjected to an unfortunate pratfall. Cohen is a talented performer and he makes the most of his thin role, but the character certainly overstays his welcome with a pointless romantic subplot that goes nowhere.
The movie is at its best when focused on Hugo and his discovery of cinema treasures and that is thankfully where most of the narrative resides. Butterfield has a tough role, but he delivers a nuanced performance that feels honest throughout. Whenever it comes time to emote, Butterfield sells it all quite sweetly. Moretz is very good as Hugo's companion, while Kingsley excites at the centre of the movie's more potent conflict. But the biggest and brightest star here is Scorsese, who brings artistry to the third dimension and intimacy to an impassioned discussion of cinema's introduction to the world. Hugo is a compelling commentary on where cinema once was and where it is today. It's not without some blemishes, but the movie emerges a touching love letter to the sensational experience of realizing dreams through the lens of a camera. What a delightful little treat. Operating outside his comfort zone once again, Scorsese proves to be a worthy Cinemagician, too.