'Hugo': Scorsese's Holiday Gift
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
To call Martin Scorsese a director of gangster movies is like calling John Ford a director of Westerns: hardly inaccurate, but hardly the whole picture, either. Still, I had to laugh the other night over dinner with a friend who was telling me the tagline he jokingly suggested to somebody involved in "Hugo": "Finally, Martin Scorsese makes a movie for the whole family. No, not that family!"
Yes, this picture would seem to represent several kinds of departures for the man who gave us the likes of "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull," some of the most visionary and harrowing and emotionally raw American films of any era. It's not just the fact that it is, indeed, a very family-friendly film, a period piece that's a fantasia on not just the magical place that was Paris in the '20s, but about one of filmmaking's earliest and greatest magicians. It's also in 3-D, a technology that, as with most filmmaking modes and methods, Scorsese has studied backward and forward, but which one didn't necessarily expect him to actually use. But most movingly, I think, it's also the lightest, easiest and most serene of Scorsese's films, despite its often frenetic slapstick action. And I think it's because that with "Hugo," Scorsese is making a gift to the audience out of what is one of his greatest loves: that is, his love of movies.
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Based on a young adult book by Brian Selznick, "Hugo" has in its title hero a preteen orphan (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the rafters of a grand Parisian train station, winding its clocks and hiding from its authority figures, the most conspicuous of whom is a comically inept but eventually poignant guard (Sacha Baron Cohen). Hugo is a born tinkerer, a gift he inherited from his late father (Jude Law, in a brief appearance), and the time he doesn't spend winding clocks, he's working on reanimating an odd automaton he inherited, in a manner of speaking, from his dad. He filches spare parts like springs and such from the curiosity shop run in the station by a stern older gentleman (Ben Kingsley) who has a very nice young niece, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). The young girl befriends Hugo after the older man chastises him and confiscates his notebook. Somehow the old man and Hugo's automaton, which is missing a crucial part, are related. Isabelle, very keen on adventure and the imagination, is eager to help Hugo put together the pieces. She introduces him to great books, and he introduces her to cinema, which she's been forbidden from experiencing up to this point.
That's because, as the cinephiles among the viewers will have figured out via some strategically placed clues in John Logan's script, Kingsley's somewhat sour old man is primary film magician Georges Melies, creator of the still-legendary early-effects film "A Trip to the Moon" and scores of other marvels, here depicted as a man embittered by what he believes to be his lost legacy. As they edge closer and closer to a solution to the mystery of the automaton, Isabelle and Hugo also become almost unwitting revivalists of Melies' work, and restorers of his spirit.
The story is conveyed with terrifically beautiful colors and ever-graceful motion. The use of 3-D is less for in-your-eye action jolts than an encompassing sense of being present in each marvelously phantasmagoric shot, as Scorsese's camera glides and ducks through evocative fantastic environments. And when the film flashes back to Melies' glory days as a filmmaker, his glass-house studio and the magnificent and magnificently eccentric costumes and sets for his films (which were often adaptations of the man's stage magic act), the sense of wonder becomes practically intoxicating. Cinema, Scorsese is saying explicitly here, is the re-creation of dreams into moving images to be wallowed in and cherished, and the resolutions of the film's varied story lines represent a very humane recognition of the way our dreams mirror our hearts.
I've already heard a number of people complain that "Hugo" is too slow, and too cerebral, to appeal to a generation of children and young adults who are more accustomed to rather frenetic and noisome fare. I have no real idea as to whether that's true. But I do think it's rather a shame that conventional wisdom is such that so many believe that our children's imaginations are so crass and predictable as to be so easily categorized and practically commodified. Aside from being one of Scorsese's most personal films, it's also one of the least cynical films of this or any other year. Show it a little faith, and show a little faith in the children in your life, and maybe they'll both surprise you.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.