Scorsese salutes early cinema in charming, if uneven 'Hugo'
If you love silent movies, you'll love Martin Scorsese's new family-friendly film, Hugo. And if you're a fan of the delightfully nutty, hand-made fantasy movies of early French film pioneer Georges Melies, you're in for a special treat. Scorsese's film is not only an homage to the great Melies, but to the turn-of-the-century spirit of clockwork, hands-on inventiveness that spawned him. Best of all, it's an opportunity to see a fabulous montage of vintage, hand-tinted Melies footage as God intended—on a great, big screen. And, boy, does it look great!
Unfortunately, the downside of Hugo is that it seems to take forever for the magic to kick in. It's based on the wonderful novel,
“The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” by Brian Selznick, a fanciful tale told largely in expressive charcoal drawings that sprawl across the pages. Visual style is just as important to Scorsese, who crams the film with breathtaking images, from sweeping aerial views of a 1930s Paris that sparkles like Faeryland to the intricate interiors, catwalks and crawlspaces of the railway station clock tower where the orphaned Hugo, lives. But this is also Scorsese's first film in 3-D, and he doesn't miss a chance to exploit his new gimmick: dogs lunge, crowds throng, ashes and snowflakes whirl out into space, trains come speeding down the tracks. It's exhausting.
Twelve-year-old Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is a little scavenger, living secretly in the walls of the Paris Metro, and keeping all the station clocks wound. He inherited the job from his inebriated uncle, who took the boy in after the death of Hugo's beloved father (Jude Law, in flashback), a clockmaker. All Hugo has left of his father is a wondrous clockwork automaton, with a pen clutched in its steely fingers, that his father found abandoned in a museum basement. Trying to repair the mechanical man was his father's pet project, and Hugo is determined to finish the job.
Hugo often sneaks down into the station to pilfer gears and other stray parts from a grumpy old man (Ben Kingsley) who runs a mechanical toy shop. The old man catches him one day, and while Hugo is now in constant danger of being reported to the officious Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen)—who takes special glee in packing unclaimed children off to the orphanage—he also makes an ally of the old man's bookish, adventure-loving granddaughter, Isabelle (a perky Chloe Grace Moretz). Together, they unlock the mystery that connects Hugo's automaton to Isabelle's "Papa Georges," and his secret life as a visionary cinema artist 30 years earlier.
The expositionary first half of the film slows to a crawl at times, not only because Scorsese is distracted trying to find stuff to pop out of the screen, but because scriptwriter John Logan doesn't yet have a grip on his narrative tone. Far too much slapstick revolves around the Inspector, with his wooden leg and relentless Doberman Pinscher (although Cohen is excellent, bringing vulnerability and fractured dignity to the part). At other times, Scorsese is so busy oohing and ahhing over the gigantic gears and cogs, he forgets to keep the story moving.
None of which matters when the Melies backstory takes over. First the kids find a wonderful book of photos from his films, then Scorsese recreates the bustle of the glass studio Melies built with his muse, Jeanne (Helen McCrory), to produce their giddy short films, with their dragons, mermaids, moon explorers and chorus girls. We learn how Melies created depth shooting into layers of sets, added color by hand-tinting each frame, and created special effects by snipping out frames of film with a scissors. The charm and exuberance of these scenes is well worth however long it may take to get there, especially the glorious montage of genuine Melies footage in the grand finale.
Hugo seems a bit long for a children's film, but this celebration of early movie-making is irresistible. (It's also book-friendly, with dear old Christopher Lee as a bookseller who's always handing out volumes to kids.) It's easy to see what drew cinephile Scorsese to this material, and no one who loves movies should miss it.
★★★1/2 (Out of four)
With Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Chloe Grace Moretz. Witten by John Logan. From the book by Brian Selznick. Directed by Martin Scorsese. A Paramount release. Rated R. 127 minutes.
Read more about Georges Melies and his films at Lisa Jensen Online Express, ljo-express.blogspot.com.
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