I tend to think of Scorsese as a master of genre films—he’s done gangster films (Goodfellas, Casino), comedy (After Hours, The King of Comedy), police drama (The Departed), psychological thriller (Shutter Island), boxing (Raging Bull), biopic (Kundun, The Aviator, No Direction Home), concert (Shine a Light), historical (Gangs of New York), literary classic (The Age of Innocence), even a remake Cape Fear) and a sequel (The Color of Money)—but he tends to bring such a distinct touch to the films, they don’t quite feel like genre films.
So when I heard he was taking a stab at a kiddie flick, Hugo immediately shot to my most anticipated Scorsese film to date (outside, of course, of the fictional film he was making with Larry David as the money-hurling mob boss in Curb Your Enthusiasm)—added to that who wouldn’t be interested in Scorsese’s take on 3D?
And Hugo doesn’t disappoint. It’s not the most compelling story, but for all its two-hour-seven-minute running time, I wasn’t bored once. There’s a lot more going on, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but first the rundown.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an urchin who haunts a Paris railway station in the early 1930s, repairing its clocks and stealing various cogs and sprockets to rebuild the homunculus he and his father (Jude Law) were working on right up to his death. While Hugo tends to remain out of the sight and mind of the station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), he’s less successful evading the eye of the toymaker he robs (Ben Kingsley). Caught trying to thieve a wind-up mouse, he’s forced to give up his father’s notebook, which includes all the instructions on repairing the mechanical man and provokes a strange reaction from the toymaker.
Hugo follows the man home, meeting up with his ward Isabelle (Chlöe Grace Moretz), who agrees to help him get the notebook back and in doing so quickly becomes friends with Hugo, introducing him to, among others, the stern but kindly station librarian Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), her godmother Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory), and the mysterious heart-shaped key dangling around her neck, the same key Hugo needs to complete his mechanical man.
There’s much, much more, but, as I mentioned, the real pleasure is the sights, sets, and tone. Even on the surface, Hugo isn’t quite children’s movie as it is a celebration of early cinema. Scorsese is like a kid in an ocean of puppies, with a cheerfulness that’s doubled considering who he is, the kind of films he makes or topics he’s drawn to, and even his age. Who knew that the man behind Taxi Driver had such a warm side to him? That’s not to say Scorsese has ever made a “mean” picture (Mean Streets doesn’t count, though parts of After Hours do have some nastiness to them)–I think he’s always been respectful or at least not condescending toward his audience; I just didn’t expect such an upbeat and playful film from him.
This is also the year we had Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which provided a different, and somewhat more abrasive, counterpoint to approximately the same time and place (and Scorsese tosses in two notables Allen omitted—Joyce and Django Reinhardt [the omission of Joyce from MiP was odd, but Allen gave Reinhardt his due in Sweet and Lowdown]). Neither attempts an accurate depiction of 1930’s Paris; rather they construct an idealization, rife with all the images and quirks and people we’d dream of populating it. Yet, while Allen’s film warns against doing so, Scorsese’s provides the perfect addendum: Sure, our idols may have been louses in real life, but let’s not forget their work—nor deny the influence it’s had on our own.
And it’s a point that Scorsese makes with delight and reverence. When you see Méliès’s eyes light up as he tells the young, awed Rene Tabard that his profession is recreating dreams, there’s a sense that Scorsese is inserting himself into both roles. As director, he uses the 3D to bring an additional element of imagination to the wonders of Méliès; and as an admirer, he keeps the focus on his predecessor. The first time we see the 3D used in conjunction with Méliès, it’s overlooking a set, specifically the throne room of Poseidon. The actors are in place, and as Méliès goes over the scene, we see a handful of fish scurry across the screen, and then a lobster. The camera tilts up to reveal a tank, with a stagehand casually dropping several other lobsters in. Méliès calls, “Action!” and the film within a film plays out. Scorsese sets the mood, but ultimately hands it off to Méliès, and his work effortlessly speaks for itself. Reverence and delight.
I think that’s largely the heart of Hugo, or at least that’s what I took away from it. As I said, the story I didn’t find compulsively compelling, but neither was I bored by it. The first half is so visually rich and appealing, that I could watch the people in the train stop go about their lives all day. Much of it plays like a silent film, from Hugo’s scurrying from this clock to that to the ongoing relationship between the station newsstand tender and the cafe owner—which, if it has any dialogue to it, it’s scarcely needed. Scorsese draws his world from many silent films—Hugo dangling from the clock, the train wreck, and countless others I missed—and uses the latter half of the movie as a cinematic bibliography—like he’s saying, “Look at this, and here’s where it comes from.” And while I’m compelled to write that he’s also reminding other filmmakers that special effects (Méliès being a master and inventor of so many early techniques) should serve a purpose other than themselves, there’s not really a disapproving or negative frame in the film. It’s a celebration—and a very delightful one.