A genius for storytelling
Hugo is a big-budget, 3D, children’s adventure for grown-ups directed by Martin Scorsese. It is one of my two picks for an Oscar this year. (The other, The Descendants, I reviewed last month.) Just as Danny Boyle not only directed Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, but also made the delightful “G” rated fable Millions, and just as David Lynch not only made Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, but the inspirational “G” rated movies, The Elephant Man and The Straight Story, so Martin Scorsese, better known for the adult-themed movies Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Gangs of New York, has now made a totally captivating and inspired film adaption of Brian Selznick’s Caldecott Award winner for best American children’s picture book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” What all three filmmakers have in common is a genius for storytelling, whether for adults or children.
Hugo tells the delightful story of a young boy who lives during the 1930’s in the walls of Paris’ Montparnasse train station, keeping its clocks running after his drunken uncle abandons him. Sneaking out to steal meals from the food sellers and mechanical parts from a toy shop, he works on a broken down “automaton” that he and his father had been bringing back to life before his father’s death. Hugo must also avoid the odd station inspector (played with caricatured abandon by Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame/infamy) and his Doberman.
There are wonderful chase scenes through the halls of the train station, which is alive with color and sound. All is well, until the mysterious shop owner, Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), catches Hugo stealing his toys. Hugo is trying to finish restoring his wind-up man using drawings his father had left him in a small notebook. To make matters worse, the mean-spirited Méliès also confiscates this notebook, Hugo’s prize possession. He tells Hugo that he must now work in the store if he hopes ever to get it back, and if he hopes to escape being turned over to the inspector.
There are also several subplots. Will the lonely inspector find a companion in Lisette (Emily Mortimer) who sells flowers? What should viewers make of the woman with her dachshund and her suitor? But central to the forward movement of the story is the developing friendship that blossoms between the shop owner’s God-daughter Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) and Hugo (Asa Butterfield) – a relationship that leads them through wonderful adventures. Isabelle loves trying out new words on Hugo, and Hugo sneaks Isabelle into the movie theater, a place she has never been allowed to go. She is cautious; he is bold. As they are about to enter the theater, for example, Isabelle warns Hugo, “We could get into trouble.” Only for Hugo to respond, “That’s how we know it’s an adventure.”
Homage to life’s fullness
Together Isabelle and Hugo help one another become more aware of life’s fullness. But eventually, their adventures also do more. They accidentally uncover the origin of the mysterious toy shop owner’s meanness, as well as initiate his redemption. A bitter man for most of the movie, he is someone as broken and in need of restoration as the automaton. Méliès has his past literally unlocked by the key he has given his God-daughter to wear around her neck as jewelry. The same key Hugo also uses to restart his automaton. In this way, new life is thus discovered for Hugo and Méliès.
Scorsese, perhaps more than any other present day filmmaker, has been concerned to preserve the celluloid stories of past eras. Working tirelessly with those like the UCLA film archives, he has been responsible for the restoration of scores of movies. It is all together fitting, therefore (and surely why Scorsese was originally attracted to this children’s story), that the movie Hugo turns out to be an homage to one of the first great filmmakers, Georges Méliès.
Someone largely forgotten today, Méliès was the first to move beyond realistic depictions of events and instead put images on the screen that were like dreams. A magician by trade, Méliès found the silver screen to be another forum for magic, a new means to “trick” his audience. His “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) was the first science fiction masterpiece. But tragically, much of Méliès’ corpus was lost when, after he became bankrupt, he was forced to burn some of his film stock for the price of the chemicals. With Hugo, however, something of the genius of this early pioneer of film is recovered. As we watch the film, we celebrate the wonder of the human imagination.
Hugo is a captivating, wonder-filled, history lesson that allows something of the magic of early cinema and of one creative pioneer to be recovered. In the process, it helps us understand the art of good cinematic storytelling. In addition to a strong adapted screenplay, part of this movie’s “magic,” surely, is the stunning visuals. Even James Cameron, whose movie Avatar set the standard for successful 3D movies, has praised Hugo for the finest use of this technology yet. The opening, sweeping shot of Paris is masterful as it plunges viewers into the bustle of the Montparnasse train station, as are the many chase scenes through that station. Similarly, Howard Shore’s musical score is a total delight, adding texture and emotion to the storytelling. And not to be overlooked is the masterful cinematography by Robert Richardson. To help viewers enter into the world of a child, Richardson has allowed us to view this story through the eye of a child. The camera lens’ location is brilliantly positioned from Hugo’s point of view. Viewers thus find themselves naturally brought into young Hugo’s frame of reference.
Like the carefully wound and well-oiled clocks in this children’s tale, Scorsese has given viewers a carefully honed and orchestrated movie in which text, image, and music all work together brilliantly.
The yearning to connect
Hugo is on one level a story about an orphan in search of family and friendship. It tells the compelling story of one small boy’s desperate attempts to remain close to his dead father by completing a project they shared – the repair of a broken automaton. His friendship with a young girl allows that to happen. As the psalmist writes and this story portrays, “God sets the lonely in families.” (Ps. 68:6)
But the movie is also more than this yearning for connection. In fact, as the story develops, the movie’s focus seems to move at least partly elsewhere. It comes to center not so much on friendship and family, as on the wonder and magic of artistic invention, particularly as embodied in the early movie legend Georges Méliès.
The movie’s story is told compellingly from both perspectives. Both human creativity and human connectedness are themes worth developing and themes heavy with theological import. And the film is certainly a display of Scorsese’s brilliant craftsmanship as a filmmaker and honors all story-tellers and the Story-teller.
Share this review with some friends. Then watch Hugo together and talk about your observations, following Robert’s exposition. How does this experience help you to understand your own faith and life?
To learn more about watching movies as a Christian, order your copy of Roy Anker’s, Of Pilgrims and Fire, from our online store. You might also benefit from reading the article, “Watching Movies to the Glory of God,” by Adam Parker.