A Boy, His Toy, and the History of Cinema in Hugo

Martin Scorsese’s first foray into big-budget family filmmaking—as well as his inaugural effort in 3-D—Hugo is a personal statement disguised as a sellout.

Based on Brian Selznick’s 2007 illustrated kids’ book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Hugo centers on its title character, played by Asa Butterfield, a just-prepubescent orphan squatting in a train station circa 1930, in the section of Movie Paris where everyone speaks English in a British accent. By day, when not dodging an orphan-hunting station constable (Sacha Baron Cohen), Hugo secretly maintains the station’s clocks. By night, he attempts to fix an automaton, the only keepsake the boy has from his watchmaker father (Jude Law), who died suddenly and mysteriously. A half-life-size humanoid reminiscent of the robots in Metropolis, the automaton’s hand is built to grip a pen, and Hugo has become convinced that if he could get that hand to work, it would write out a message from his dad.

Hugo’s obsession with the writing robot leads him to habitually steal small machine parts from the station’s toy shop, which is operated by a gruff old man (Ben Kingsley) called Papa Georges by his charge, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a precocious, beret-topped sprite about Hugo’s age. Hugo and Isabelle become inextricably linked when together they discover that the automaton was originally built by a silent filmmaker and special-effects innovator named Georges Méliès—which happens to be Papa Georges’s full name. With this revelation, Hugo pivots: The boy’s attempt to excavate his own personal history becomes an excavation and celebration of the first three decades of cinema history, and the movie’s stakes shift accordingly.

Details

Hugo
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Paramount Pictures
Opens November 23

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Once Papa Georges’s true identity is revealed, Scorsese stops the narrative for a reel in order to explain, via flashback, who Méliès was and why he matters. A carnival magician whose career dates back to the turn of the 20th century, when movies were a non-narrative sideshow attraction, Méliès adopted moviemaking as a new method for making magic. Essentially the inventor of the concept of special effects, he pioneered the use of cinematographic tricks like dissolves, multiple exposures, and time-lapse photography. As with so many early films, much of Méliès’s groundbreaking output was destroyed, sold so the film stock could be melted down and recycled.

“Time hasn’t been kind to old movies,” one character admits in Hugo, and he could be speaking for Scorsese, who through his nonprofit Film Foundation has become the celebrity face of film preservation. Once this cause becomes Hugo’s primary subject, it becomes increasingly clear that ticking clocks, not the station constable, are this movie’s real villain. In the story of Méliès’s life as recounted by Scorsese—and by extension, the story of the movies—time is the enemy that alters the tastes of audiences, decays film prints, and turns today’s fetish objects into tomorrow’s relics.

Perfunctorily mounted as a children’s adventure, Hugo is weirdly staid in its pacing, and the screenplay, by Scorsese’s Aviator collaborator John Logan, is full of groaners. The movie is far more successful as a barely veiled issue flick. Scorsese’s most straightforward argument is that history repeats itself: that what happened to Méliès a century ago could easily happen today, as the film industry’s ever-narrowing focus on the bottom line overwhelms historical and preservationist concerns.

But of course, Scorsese is not an innocent bystander. He’s abetting, proliferating, and profiting from Hollywood’s inescapable money-first cynicism simply by making a movie in 3-D. That this ticket-price-inflating crutch has become all but obligatory for studio films to justify their inflated budgets is its own kind of history-repeating tragedy: How rarely has this “value-add”—cribbed from Hollywood’s most desperate 20th-century moment—felt like anything other than a cheat?

Scorsese’s most purposeful use of 3-D comes in that long flashback sequence meant to serve as a primer on early cinema, through Papa Georges’s memories of his career. Using stereoscopic technology to re-create scenes from Méliès’s proto-sci-fi films like A Trip to the Moon, Scorsese successfully replicates (and enhances) the shock value and wonderment of Méliès’s special effects—all of them originally produced through a combination of camera edits, physical props, and literal smoke and mirrors—for jaded contemporary eyes. Although this sequence is visually stunning, it’s even more interesting conceptually: one of Hollywood’s greatest directors using Hollywood’s trendiest gimmick to awaken audiences to the glory of the past. As much as Hugo is a sop to the industry’s interests, it’s also a PSA for Scorsese’s personal cause.

 
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16 comments
Antoine
Antoine

I guess the difference between me and Ms. Longworth is that I went into this movie ignorant of Scorceses' "causal motivations" and simply allowed myself to be caught up in the story of two wounded people -a child and an elderly man - and how, through the actions of the child and the RE-actions of the man, they both became healed. It is a beautiful movie. I did NOT see it in 3D by the way and spent $5.50 for matinee ticket. I have for the most part ignored 3D all together unless I'm on a ride at Disneyland or Universal Studios. I go to the movies to be told a story, and while I appreciate the stunning technology of movies today, I never want that tech to overwhelm the story itself. If I'm in the mood for a roller-coaster ride, maybe, but with a movie like Hugo, i preferred (and was absolutely delighted by) the stunning-enough digital quality of the 2D version. Ms. Longworths cynical review implies an all too journalist POV. I recognize that you ARE a journalist, but it saddens me that you are such a slave to your "work" that you are apparently unable to allow yourself to be swept up by the beauty of a wonderful story, beautifully told.

Gloria Monti
Gloria Monti

if you don't spell scorsese's name correctly, your argument becomes invalid. moreover, you embody that suspension of disbelief with which hollywood cinema has hypnotized its viewers, reaping profits from uncritical spectators.

calling all toasters
calling all toasters

If you don't capitalize the beginnings of sentences, your argument becomes invalid.

dearhabby
dearhabby

Agreed. The plot device of "we can't talk about (insert issue) or we will upset Papa " always makes me squirm in my seat-- and this movie is a squirmer. Pacing was slow-- repetitive chase scenes with Hugo thrashing, salmon-like, against a ceaseless torrent of faceless bodies as he runs yet again back to the safety of his hidey-hole, grew tiresome and predictable.

It is stunningly beautiful in places-- really. But on the whole not worth the hoopla.

Mohair Gaddafi
Mohair Gaddafi

Two hours of boredom. Boring for adults. Boring for kids. The pacing is off. The use of 3-D is gimmicky. If you were expecting to be entertained, you will be disappointed, as the plodding story suddenly becomes a PSA for saving old movies. Fine for a PBS special, not so fine when you have to pay $12.50 for a ticket. With a production budget of over $150 million, and only $50 million in ticket sales, this turkey is on its way to becoming one of the biggest cinema money-losers ever. Ever.

Michael O'Farrell
Michael O'Farrell

I just saw it today, New Year's eve. It's a gorgeous looking movie with a fascinating subject surrounded by lush production values and the "wonder' of 3D. Frankly the 3D gave me a headache and although the use of the medium showcased some spectacular effects I will limit my 3D viewing in the future. I love movies, the history of movies (which is what this purportedly family film is really about). "Hugo" is a decent film but i agree with the reviewer: the pacing is quite stodgy, particularly the middle section of the film. I saw the film at a mall and I kept thinking "This is an Art House movie, it doesn't belong in generic mall venue." I'd venture to guess that many people seeing this film will not like it, as the typical mall fare is more or less junk most of the time, and that is what the average moviegoer is accustomed to. I would be interested in seeing "Hugo" again, probably on home video, in 2D.

Mitchell Davis
Mitchell Davis

A very intelligent and well written critique of the movie. Although I usually lean towards male reviewers since I am male I need to start following Ms. Longworth.

Alan in SF
Alan in SF

I can't help thinking that "The Artist" displayed its love for the lost magic of silent filmmaking by actually showing it, while "Hugo" did it by having a "film professor" character deliver a series of mini-lecture. Hugo reminded me of Inception -- it had to keep stopping so that a character could explain what the plot line was now.

Mcbeatyspam
Mcbeatyspam

This movie was visually stunning; however, the story line was incredibly slow and boring. An exercise in self-indulgence on Scorcese's part, and yet another example of Hollywood-types (including critics) glorifying their work. A total yawn.

Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin

I was likewise distracted by Parisians speaking Londonese. All except, for whatever reason, Christopher Lee.

Morris
Morris

i saw the film in 2D with my 5 year old daughter. having not read the book or the above review, the movie was full of surprises... the film was a lush canvas filled with good characters and stories within stories... i can see why martin would want to make this movie about movies and three cheers for his effort and results, it's a great experience which looses nothing in 2D... the above review is nothing but over stuffed plot exposition coupled with an annoying lack of imagination... great film...

Kenji
Kenji

"...overstuffed plot exposition coupled with an annoying lack of imagination..."

Funny, that's exactly what she's saying about the movie.

John Heinz
John Heinz

Good retro pursuit~~like Midnight in Paris Makes me want to pursue Melies more. Can you imagine Melies' lost erotica?

Rob
Rob

Scorsese = GOAT

Sakara
Sakara

martin score sleazy = old goat.

this is the type of crap score sleazy was, supposedly, rebelling against in the 1970s.

so much for the book, 'easy riders, raging bulls" with it's bullshit about raging bull being the last important movie of its era, and not star wars.

AmyK
AmyK

Such a statement proves that you don't know anything about Scorsese. This is NOT the kind of film he was rebelling against (I'm not sure that he was actually rebelling against anything). Rather, it's assuring to know that he has remained a rebel against shallow film viewing. Scorsese then was about the anxiety of tradition and images, just as Scorsese NOW is, and that we are living in the Information Age, his films have actually become - if not as sublime - hauntingly rich markers of the time. "Hugo" is no exception. No it's not "Raging Bull" - but it's what "The Tempest" was to "Hamlet."

 

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