Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) with their newly working robot in Hugo.
Martin Scorsese's Hugo is this joyful love letter to youth, discovery, and the magic of movies. It's also a visual feast for the eyes like we haven't seen in years. Though a complete departure on so many levels for Scorsese, Hugo is just as good as some of his best works, both technically and thematically. Its performances are top-notch, and the director's vision is as crystal clear as ever. Those concerned that Scorsese has gone soft needn't worry. Sure, Hugo has more heart than you'd expect from the director of Taxi Driver, but the great director doesn't sacrifice anything to accommodate the little ones. It's a monumentally satisfying experience, and easily one of the best films of the year.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a young orphan living in the clock tower at the Paris train station. He spends his days tending to the clocks, swiping food from carts, and thieving gears and gizmos from the nearby toy store. His father died while fixing a robot, and Hugo has made it his mission to see the task through. Unfortunately, the toy store's owner (Ben Kingsley) is quite cantankerous and isn't too happy when he catches Hugo stealing from him. He forces him to work in order to pay his debts, and while doing so, Hugo connects with his new boss' goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), who might hold the key to finally fixing the robot.
With Hugo, Scorsese temporarily says goodbye to his trademark wiseguy attitude, trading it in for something that's both heart-warming and more accessible. Yes, the film is a family movie, so its conclusion is hardly in doubt, but the film's pleasure is the journey, not the destination. It's a ride I would have been happy to go along with no matter where Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan elected to take me.
The direction the film takes at its halfway point, however, was a surprise to me. What starts out as a simple tale about a boy trying to fix a robot turns into something more complex and meaningful. There's a lot of talk about how people—like machines—are meant to do one thing, and those that can't are broken. Hugo, along with Isabelle, find one such individual and make it their mission to fix him. I'll leave the identity of that individual to you to discover, but suffice it to say, it was someone near and dear to my movie-loving heart, and even if you aren't familiar with this person, Scorsese teaches you and makes you feel invested.
What really elevates Hugo to a whole other stratosphere, however, are its visuals. If you don't see the film in 3D, you're doing yourself a disservice. It's so vivid and enveloping, I can' imagine the film without it. I certainly have railed against the technology a lot over the past year or so, but this film, like Avatar, just goes to show how much it can bring to a movie in the hands of someone who knows what they're doing.
Beyond the 3D, the art direction is spectacular. This train station lives and breathes like the individuals walking through it, and the crew behind Hugo make it their job to help you hear, feel, and even smell everything happening on the platforms, in the cafes, near the flower stands, and behind the walls. The cinematography—a craft I feel sometimes gets lost when there's an extra dimension involved, but not here—gives the film a very grand feeling, with its swooping movements and magnificent aerial shots.
Though the film doesn't boast a real standout performance, there isn't a weak link in the entire cast. Asa Butterfield is a little flat as Hugo, but not as much as other reviews would have you believe. He's a wide-eyed kid at heart, but his reality is pretty grim, and the young actor pulls of these two conflicting realities well. Chloe Moretz has done such great work over the past few years, but she doesn't have a ton to do in Hugo. Ditto for folks like Emily Mortimer, Richard Griffiths, Christopher Lee, and Michael Stuhlbarg. Sasha Baron Cohen plays the station's sourpuss of an inspector. One gets the feeling this character is there primarily to keep the kids entertained. His denouement will bring a smile to your face, though I must say, I thought Scorsese spent a little too much time on him.
Two performers stand head and shoulders, then, above the rest: One shouldn't come as a surprise, the other almost certainly will. Ben Kingsley's character is a real grouch at the film's start, though we get to see him (very) slowly warm up and come back out of a shell she's been hiding under for decades. This transformation is the film's most emotionally-satisfying material, and it's bolstered by the film's other great performance—that of Helen McCrory. A quick IMDB search tells me she was Malfoy's mother in the latter "Harry Potter" films, but she felt like a fresh face to me. As Kingsley's character's wife, she must stand by him, even if she thinks he's wrong. But her unwavering support, and clear internal conflict about it, was quite moving to me.
I had no idea what to expect from Hugo, and honestly, I hadn't much been looking forward to it, even after the overwhelmingly positive reviews started trickling in. Having now seen it, I'm not sure why I ever doubted Scorsese. The guy could direct a film about the phone book, and I'm sure it'd be compelling. This film is more than that: It's a sweeping love story wrapped up in a fairy tale, and you'll find yourself caught up in it all before the intro credits even finish. To Martin: Sir, I don't know how you manage to nail it every time, but bravo. Your latest is a triumph.