Although I will always be a fan of his iconic films like “Goodfellas”, “Taxi Driver”, and “The Departed”, it is the atypical Martin Scorsese films that have left on me the most lasting impression. These un-Scorsese masterpieces are those films directed – and often written or co-written – by the Italian-American auteur that are wholly devoid of the urban, graphic, crime-related narratives most often associate with Scorsese’s canon. In recent years, I’ve revisited his “Kundun”, “The King of Comedy”, and “The Last Temptation of Christ” almost as often as I have “Goodfellas”. However, it wasn’t until today that I actually sat to watch his 2011 feature, “Hugo”, because, frankly, the film was so promoted so heavily as being a holiday children’s movie, I didn’t think it could hold my interest. Oh how wrong I was.
“Hugo” is unlike any other film Martin Scorsese has ever made, and yet could possibly be a mirror of his own life. As a child growing up in Brooklyn’s Little Italy, the asthmatic Scorsese observed life from the windows of his family’s apartment, soaking up the cinema from television and local theaters, and adopting great directors as his mentors, and rescuing their careers after years of neglect. “Hugo” is set in turn of the century Paris, where orphaned Hugo Cabret lives in the walls of the Paris Gare Montparnasse railway station, observing the lives of the early Twentieth Century travelers, while he mends the station’s clocks.
Before dying in a museum fire, Hugo father dreamed to complete an “automaton” – an automated man that was mysteriously donated to the museum in which Hugo’s father worked. Hugo’s father dies with it left unperfected. Rather than be treated as an orphan, the boy hides himself in the maze of ladders, catwalks, passages and gears of the clockworks themselves, keeping them running right on time. He feeds himself with croissants snatched from station shops and begins to sneak off to the movies.
Early in the film, Hugo’s life in the station is made complicated by a toyshop owner from whom Hugo steals assorted gears and springs to maintain the station clocks. As it turns out, the toyshop owner is Georges Melies, the immortal French film pioneer, who was also the original inventor of the automaton.
The way “Hugo” deals with Melies is enchanting in itself, but the film’s first half is devoted to the escapades of its protagonist. The way the film uses CGI and other techniques to create the train station and the city, the movie is awe-inspiring. The opening shot swoops above the vast cityscape of Paris and ends with Hugo peering out of an opening in a clock face far above the station floor. The first half of “Hugo” follows the young boy’s Dickensian adventures as he stays one step ahead of the choleric Station Inspector (perfectly portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen), in chase sequences through the station crowds.
Hugo’s father has left behind notebooks, including his plans to finish the automaton. Being a somewhat a genius with gears, screws, springs and levers, Hugo’s goal is to complete his father’s masterwork.
One day Hugo is able to share his secret with a girl named Isabelle, who also lives in the station, and was raised by none other than old George Melies and his wife. She is introduced to Hugo’s secret world, and he to hers — the books in the cavernous libraries she explores. And, but for the masterful cinematography, “Hugo” starts as advertised – a family-friendly CGI holiday film much like “The Adventures of Tintin” or “The Polar Express”.
But, at the halfway mark, Scorsese flips the narrative to being that of the history and career of Georges Melies. And it is in the Melies story that Scorsese’s distinctive cinematic genius shines like a supernova. Scorsese has made documentaries about great films and directors, and here he brings those skills to storytelling. We see Melies (who built the first movie studio) using fantastical sets and costumes to make films with “magical” effects ¬— all of which were hand-tinted, frame-by-frame. And as the plot makes unlikely connections, Melies is able to discover that he is not forgotten, but heralded.
“Hugo” celebrates the birth of the cinema and dramatizes Scorsese’s personal crusade to preserve old films. Moreover, the seamless CGI wizardry under Scorsese’s direction serves as a reminder of the breathtaking magic that can still be captured among the moving images. Perhaps most astonishingly, it is through “Hugo” that Scorsese may have achieved his greatest feat yet – creating a celluloid world that transports any audience into his Little Italy bedroom to share in his childhood wonder of the miracle of film.