Hugo (United States, 2012)
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: John Logan, based on the book by Brian Selznick
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Jude Law
Martin Scorsese’s gushing adulation for the history of cinema is well known, from the director’s founding of the non-profit Film Foundation in 1990 to name-checking Georges Méliès, D.W. Griffith, John Ford and Howard Hawks liberally when interviewed about his own movies.
In film scholasticism Scorsese is the Martin Prince of directors, the student sitting at the front of the class with an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of film, and this devotion to those who came before him is evident to varying degrees in all of his own works, even as he has evolved cinematic art multiple times during his career.
In Brian Selznick’s young-adult novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret the director found a story perfectly in tune with his deification of the early founders of cinema, a story whose eponymous character – a small orphan boy living in Paris in the early 1920s – discovers the delights of movie-making from one of its most famous practitioners, and sees the motion picture with childlike wonder, part work of art and part work of magic.
This story allows Scorsese to not only use early works of cinema and the birth of the industry as a plot device, but to actually display many of these works within his film itself, wonderfully restored and in 3D. Hugo befriends the film pioneer Georges Méliès, whose wife regales Hugo with stories of the production of Méliès’ most famous films including A Trip to the Moon, House of the Devil and Fairyland: A Kingdom of Fairies, and recreations of the making of those films evoke the anarchic fun of a three-ringed circus.
It may be cynical to suggest that Hugo will receive near-universal critical acclaim because a movie about the magic of early cinema is likely to appeal to those who love cinema so much that they write about it for a living, but that’s not to say that there isn’t significant appeal for the regular viewer.
The growth of the relationship between Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) is full of heart, and side stories involving the weird and wonderful rogues’ gallery of characters populating the station also provide welcome respite from the occasionally weighty main story. Sacha Baron Cohen is especially great as the station inspector, and be prepared to wish Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee) was your local librarian.
Whether you know your Chaplins from your Keatons or not, the heartfelt wonder Hugo feels for early cinema is relatable for even the most jaded of modern audiences, because we’re all nostalgic for something from our childhood, and though Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris may have recently warned us of the folly of nostalgia, it can be damn good fun sometimes.
And when that nostalgia is filtered through the eyes of a superstar modern director like Martin Scorsese, it may even spur a few people to Google the name Georges Méliès, which can only be a good thing.