Theatrical Review: Hugo

And to think I almost didn’t see this…

I’m certainly a Martin Scorsese fan and look forward to his movies, but to be honest, the initial trailers that I saw for Hugo just didn’t do anything for me.  This looked like another kid’s fantasy film from it’s marketing and there was nothing there other than saying it was directed by Martin Scorsese that made it special.

I should’ve known better…

Thanks to some articles that I read later on (and the review from Ebert Presents At The Movies), I then got the urge to see the movie and thank goodness I did.  I’ve been waiting to see if there was going to be anything that knocked Takeshi Miike’s 13 Assassins off of my top spot for the year and Hugo did just that.  Unfortunately, I’ve been delayed in getting this review written (due to some personal circumstances), but better late than never.

Hugo is set in 1930s Paris and tells us the story of young Hugo Cabret.  Hugo is an orphan who lives in the nooks and crannies of a large train station.  Hugo is trying to complete a project that he started with his father; the restoration of a mysterious automaton.  Hugo does this by stealing parts from merchants around the area, concentrating primarily around a little toy shop run by an old man named Georges.  Georges eventually catches Hugo in the act, and from there, their fates are intertwined.

Now of course there’s way more to this than what I described and part of that includes Scorsese’s love for movies.  This isn’t any real great spoiler (as I’ve seen it turn up in other reviews) but Georges is later revealed to be the great Georges Méliès, the pioneer in visual effects and fanciful storytelling in cinema.  Hugo is a huge salute to Méliès (as well as giving nods to other film pioneers like Harold Lloyd and Jacques Tati) but it’s even more than that.  At it’s core, Hugo sends out the message that it’s OK to dream, to have flights of fancy and a sense of wonder and not get all mired in making everything so utterly real and mired in darkness.

Scorsese, just due to the nature of his past films, would at first not seem like the guy to give out this message.  If you’ve ever seen him in any sort of interview situation, then you know that his enthusiasm for the film is boundless and not just tied to the subject matter of his past films.  He’s a true master at storytelling and I think it’s just fantastic that he’s made this “break” from his past to really show just how engaging a sense of wonder in film can be.

Scorsese embraces a bright and colorful palette for the overall look of the film with only one scene featuring a desaturated look (and it’s a fitting scene for that).  You don’t normally think of Martin Scorsese as a director who’s known for strong visual effects, but with Hugo he goes there though it’s not necessarily in the same ways that other filmmakers would do it.  And then there’s the 3D… Wow.  If there’s any movie that absolutely deserves to be seen in 3D, Hugo is the one.  Sure I think you’ll still get enjoyment from this without the 3D, but with it, it’s even more special.  You’ll see it from the opening scene with huge amounts of depth.  Scorsese is sparse with the more “in-your-face” 3D effects, but when he does it, it’s terrific and effective (who would ever figure that a close-up of a dog barking could be so effective in 3D).

The cast is wonderful, though really the star of this show is Scorsese and his storytelling skills.  Asa Butterfield plays Hugo.  At the start of the film, Hugo is this little urchin character that you just don’t necessarily have that much sympathy for.  Scorsese takes his time in building the character effectively, and before you know it, we’re on this kid’s side and can’t wait to see what he does next.  Butterfield’s given himself over to Scorsese and in turn, turns out a terrific performance.  For me though, the real standout is Ben Kingsley playing Georges Méliès.  When we’re first introduced to Georges, he’s at the twilight of his life, and so suitably playing the part very dark and tired.  The greatest bit in the whole film is when Scorsese recreates what it was like to work on the set of a Georges Méliès film, with Méliès himself being much like Scorsese, this compact dynamo of energy that simply delights in the magic that he’s about to create.  Here Kingley excels but even with the way that he’s playing the character at the start, it all feels right.

Sacha Baron Cohen plays the “villain” of the piece, the Station Inspector who’s on the lookout for orphan children who are disrupting the day-to-day business of the train station.  He’s the “villain” (and those quotes are deliberate, as this is a character who certainly thinks his heart is in the right place) and also the source or comedy relief for the film.  That comedy relief isn’t broad and biting, but very gentle and giving just the right light moments when you need them.  The cast is filled out with Chloe Grace Moretz, Emily Mortimer, Helen McCrory, Christopher Lee, Ray Winstone and Jude Law.  Law plays Hugo’s father and is only seen in flashback scenes.  Though he’s only in a few scenes, he really does shine and embodies the dreamer spirit that he’s trying to pass on to his son.

Don’t miss this!!  Hugo is just a terrific film that sends out a message that’s not just important to children but to us adults as well.  The film is a technical marvel and it’s story and characters are timeless.  The 3D is fantastic and by all means, that’s how I’d recommend seeing it.  I expect this to get remembered in a big way come Oscar time and it should; simply put, for me, it’s the best movie of the year.  Highly, highly recommended.

About Darren Goodhart

Darren Goodhart is a 44-year old St. Louis-based Graphic Designer and Illustrator (and former comic book artist) who's been seeing movies all his life, but on an almost weekly basis in theatres for the last 20 years and owns nearly 1,000 DVDs for his home theatre. He's learned a lot about film over the 20 year period, and has taken his appreciation beyond the mainstream. His favorite types of film are mostly genre entertainment, but he also enjoys a wide range of drama, action and cult-y stuff from around the world, and is currently re-discovering a love affair with lower budget exploitation and genre films from the 70s and early 80s. He doesn't try to just dismiss any film, but if there's a bias against one, he'll certainly tell you that in the space of his reviews.

11. December 2011 by Darren Goodhart
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