Martin Scorsese’s new child friendly adaptation of “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” called simply Hugo is the second film I’ve seen this month that is a paean to the world of silent film. Unlike The Artist, however, this one is neither silent nor is it in black and white. It is full, glorious color and even available in 3D. (I opted for the 2D version.) It is the story of an orphaned boy (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the secret chambers of a Paris train station keeping all the clocks running on time, while hiding from the over-zealous station master (Sacha Baron Cohen) who has it in for unaccompanied children.
Hugo’s dad (Jude Law) was a great tinkerer and before he died he was working on restoring an automaton. It is the only possession Hugo takes with him when he is spirited away by his drunken uncle just moments after hearing about his father’s death. Uncle shows him his new digs within the walls of the station and his new duties taking care of the station clocks and then disappears. From his secret lair, Hugo surveys all the comings and goings, nicks a croissant here and a bottle of milk there, and is mostly able to go about his business. He also takes an item or two from the station’s toy shop, cogs and springs to help him fix the automaton because he thinks that his father has left him a message inside, if he can just get it started again. But Hugo’s quiet life changes one day when the toy shop owner Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley) catches him.
It is this relationship with the shop owner that is the heart of the movie. Hugo is forced to work off his debt fixing toys in the shop and forms a friendship with the shop owner’s goddaughter (Chloë Grace Moretz) He introduces her to the cinema and shows her his automaton, explaining that he needs a special heart-shaped key to start it. And lo! and behold, she has one around her neck! And when the automaton does come to life, it draws a picture that sends them on another quest, finally leading back to the toy shop owner. It turns out that he is a formerly famous silent film director whose fortunes turned during WWI and has now cut himself off from that part of his life. This thread of the story is based on real life silent era director Georges Méliès and is the perfect vehicle for Scorcese, an ardent proponent of film restoration and cinematic history. I won’t spoil it for people who have not read the book, but suffice to say, being a kids movie and all, everything works out.
Hugo is beautifully shot and it is a lot of fun to go behind the walls and see all those big cogs and springs. I am sure in 3D is it even more fun visually, but… The movie is long – 127 minutes, and it seems to have two separate stories. When it focuses on Ben Kingsley’s character, the silent film director, it comes alive, and I think this is what drew Scorsese to the material in the first place. But the kids’ story is kind of cold. Even Sacha Baron Cohen’s character feels subdued. I think it will appeal to people who love 3D and can let a movie get by with less when it is visually and technically outstanding, which it is. It will no doubt get some Oscar buzz, being Scorsese, and I think it should get a few for design and visuals, but in the end I am just not as thrilled as I wanted to be. The sense of wonder that great kids films usually engender just was not there. Having seen it in 2D, I think 3D is definitely the way to go.