Review: “Hugo”

December 2, 2011 at 6:56 pm Leave a comment

Most filmmakers work on a project that’s personal to them, something that they put a little bit of themselves into, beyond, say, collaborating on a script or directing the movie. My prime example of this would be Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, a film that’s as much about Spielberg’s childhood (or his romanticization of it) as it is about an alien stranded on Earth. Spielberg’s colleague, Martin Scorsese, has also made personal films. Mean Streets, his breakout feature film, was inspired partly by Scorsese’s experiences growing up in New York City. With his latest film, Hugo, Scorsese yet again puts a little of himself into a project that many critics are calling his “love letter to cinema.” I’d say that Hugo is Martin Scorsese’s E.T.

Based on the children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, the story of Hugo is about a young orphan, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) living and working behind the scenes of a train station in Paris, sometime in the 1930’s. He fixes and upkeeps all the station’s clocks, and in his spare time, he assembles parts for a mysterious automaton left by his father. Hugo meets a young, intelligent, and free-spirited young girl, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), and her grandfather-figure-of-sorts, Georges (Ben Kingsley). Georges has a secret that connects him to Hugo’s deceased father and the broken automaton Hugo’s been hiding.

Without spoiling too much, Ben Kingsley’s character is Georges Méliès — yes that Georges Méliès, the pioneer of cinema who employed some of the world’s first special effects in cinema. And he did it all before the advent of sound in motion pictures. Méliès is a popular subject among film historians, filmmakers, and film critics because, simply put, without him, the art of cinema would not have progressed the way it has over the last century. He was an inspiration to many, including Martin Scorsese.

What makes this film feel personal is that Scorsese obviously has a fascination and deep respect for early films, especially ones made during the Silent Era, where nearly all special effects were done in-camera, any color was painted in by hand and frame-by-frame, and the films were required to tell the story visually without the aid of sound. In Hugo, we see an older Georges Méliès past his prime, and living in a world that’s practically forgotten him. He sees how far movies have come in the decades since he was active and has become bitter that he can no longer practice the art he loves so much.

This is the real meat of the story.

There’s a scene in the film which touched me personally. It’s a flashback scene of sorts where Méliès is recounting his days making films. You could hear the wonder and sincere yearning in Ben Kingsley’s voice as he tells of how he started making motion pictures. It’s obvious that, for Méliès, and by extension Scorsese himself, making the film is more important than the final product. It’s the collaborative process that draws artists like him into doing what he does. The act of creating versus looking at what you’ve created. As a student of film myself, I can agree with this. No matter how bad my own movies were, I have never regretted actually making them.

So if all this attention is placed on George Méliès, why is this film called “Hugo”? Well, that’s kind of one of the problems with this film. Clocking in at a little over two hours, the movie didn’t really get interesting until about halfway through when we learn who Georges really is. Everything else before that just didn’t seem as important, so the first hour moved a little too slow for me.

Visually, the film is amazing. While the 3D effects were impressive, they didn’t always work for me. It was probably due to where I was seated in the theatre, but there were times when a character would get really close to the camera and all of a sudden my eyes just didn’t know where to focus on and it became blurry. Aside from those few moments, the 1930’s-era Parisian train station really comes to life in the lens of cinematographer Roger Richardson. With the exception of a not-so-convincing CG fly-through of the station at the start of the film, the entire production just looked gorgeous.

I also have a bit of an issue of this being a “children’s movie.” While it may feature kids as main characters and have a very whimsical nature about it, many of the themes will fly right over kids’ heads. And I can’t imagine a 10-year-old knowing who George Méliès was to begin with, or even caring about the history of cinema. That doesn’t mean this can’t be enjoyed by children, however. I guess it’s like how Pixar’s films can be childish in appearance, but deep down, they’re really for adults and the young at heart. The film’s most important lesson can easily be understood by people of all ages: no matter how lost you feel, there is a place for you in the world and you should never lose sight of that.

Hugo is a film I would recommend to anyone interested in cinema as an art and not just a form of entertainment. Budding filmmakers would also benefit from seeing this because it shows why we do what it is we do, instead of pursuing “normal” careers. It’s everything that the camera doesn’t show that makes us want to make films. The process, from writing to editing, is the art. What you get afterwards is merely icing on the cake. Hugo serves as a reminder of all that.



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