As the Oscars approach, an oft-cited trend of the nominated films is how most of them go back to the past. Midnight in Paris went back in time to the 1920’s, while The Help examined the Civil Rights era, The Tree of Life recreated the dawn of creation and War Horse was labeled as a 1950’s war film made in 2011. But the two Oscar frontrunners time traveled to the birth of cinema itself – although heavy favorite The Artist, for all its silent movie homages, didn’t have quite the same approach to it as Martin Scorsese used for Hugo.
Unlike Midnight in Paris, Hugo stays in the 1920’s for the entire movie and is set in a Parisian train station. Young orphan Hugo Cabret has secretly been operating the clocks, while avoiding the subway inspector who would send him straight to the orphanage. In between these jobs, he works on a lost, broken automaton robot that he and his father tried to fix together before he died. But when his notebook is confiscated by a toy shop owner that Hugo stole from, he enlists the help of the man’s adventurous, bookworm goddaughter to get it back. Yet while trying to find it and the secret of his father’s robot, Hugo stumbles onto even bigger secrets – which date back to the origin of film itself.
None of those plot twists were hinted at in the movie’s trailers and ads, since they aren’t exactly marketable. Despite being advertised as an ordinary 3D family movie, Hugo is not that simple – although it shouldn’t be since it comes from Scorsese. Few would picture him as a 3D family director, but as it turns out, he takes to it as easily as he does gangster movies – and shows the rest of the pack how its supposed to be done.
Considering where Hugo goes, however, it may not really fit under the traditional family film definition. In fact, it becomes a tale more suited for film buffs than children and some regular audiences, which may bore those who didn’t see it coming. Scorsese’s movies have never really been for everyone, per se, yet a squeamish stomach won’t be what turns some off to this film. The occasionally sluggish pace, jumbled plot and history lessons might do that instead.
However, for those who regard Hugo as their cup of tea, it is something to behold in a way that only Scorsese can do. For one thing, it takes a master like Scorsese to show how 3D really needs to be used, in a way no one else since James Cameron has done. It seems only Scorsese and Cameron understand that 3D is not just a tool for throwing things in audience’s faces, or jacking up ticket prices. It is supposed to take people inside another world and immerse them in it, as movies themselves are presumably meant to do – and as they did when they were born over 100 years ago.
Scorsese demonstrates his mastery of 3D right away, in a pre-credits sequence that introduces us to the world of the train station. Like Cameron did in Avatar, Scorsese puts us right into another time and place with Hugo, dropping us into the scenes instead of throwing them at us. However, there are still things that come right at us, like a menacing dog and Sacha Baron Cohen’s face – yet Scorsese knows how to use them the right way.
But after the brilliant first act and the more problematic second act, the third act shows the power of Hugo, Scorsese and even 3D itself. The birth of cinema was a time when a new breed of magicians were born – and Scorsese shows his own magical prowess by pulling off a true bait and switch. He not only shows the origins of the silver screen, but uses its newest 3D toy to make it even more vivid – using the future of film to make us into genuine witnesses of its past. Then if that wasn’t enough, Scorsese literally brings the thrills of the old silent movies back in a climactic chase – where the tools of the past and present combine in even more eye-opening fashion.
While Scorsese is the unquestioned star of Hugo, he still has his usual large, accomplished cast of actors to fill in the blanks. But it is youngsters who carry much of the proceedings – another sign that this is not the normal Scorsese movie. Newcomer Asa Butterfield delivers as Hugo himself, although he and the title character himself often get lost in the shuffle. Yet Chloe Grace Moretz, one of the most promising child actresses in the business, impresses again as Hugo’s adventurous partner.
As for the adults, Sacha Baron Cohen shows that he can be funny without Borat/Bruno shock tactics, despite a few regrettable broad comedy bits with a crippled leg. But Ben Kingsley is the poignant center of the movie, as he still has his old power when not wasting away in paycheck supporting roles. Helen McCrory is also moving as his wife, while the likes of Jude Law, Ray Winstone, Christopher Lee, Emily Mortimer and Michael Stuhlbarg pop up for key bits here and there.
Despite how life and movies are often more about the journey than the destination, Hugo pays off a bit more from the destination than the journey. As such, a brilliant opening and a powerful ending may not combine to make this a full fledged Scorsese classic – especially since it is easier to admire on a technical and historic level than to fall in love with.
However, in an age where movies often come from a mechanical, cookie cutter assembly line, it makes originals like Scorsese even more valuable. Hugo is a love letter to the past and to the movie magicians of yesterday – as only a movie magician of today could piece together. And just as everyone wonders how he could have lost Best Director Oscars for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, perhaps we will wonder in 10 years how he could have lost to The Artist‘s Michel Hazanavicius on Sunday night – if that result is still inevitable.