It’s a funny thing that Hugo and The Artist both came out in the cinemas around the same time. Here are two films that both pay tribute to the movie industry of yesteryear, yet their production values could not be more different. The Artist is a modern day silent film, shot in 4:3 ratio, black and white with a static camera. On the other hand, Martin Scorcese’s Hugo is a 3D film that incorporates computer-aided special effects and dolby digital surround sound. Both films achieve what they set out to in their own way.
I remember when Hugo was in pre-production it was billed as being Martin Scorcese’s first 3D film and also his first children’s film. While Hugo is most certainly 3D (and uses the effect pretty well at that), I hesitate to call it a children’s film. The two lead actors are children but the pace, tone and themes of the film I feel would be lost on a younger audience.
Asa Butterfield stars as the orphan Hugo Cabret who lives in a Parisian train station in the 1930s. I assume Butterfield must have showbiz parents because even though he was thirteen years old when the film was shot, this is his eighth film according to IMDB. The experience definitely shows – he puts on a fine performance for a child actor.
Hugo’s uncle used to work in the station as a mechanic until he passed away as a result of chronic alcholism. Hugo now continues his uncle’s work in the station. He lives day to day – fixing clocks, stealing food, avoiding the watchful eye of the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and collecting knick knacks that he finds lying around.
One day Hugo befriends Isabelle, the granddaughter of a grouchy shopkeeper in the station. Hugo reveals to Isabelle that he is in possession of an automaton, a mechanical robot body that can be activated with a key. As chance would have it, Isabelle is in possession of the very key to activate the robot which may possibly contain a message from Hugo’s late father. And so their adventure begins.
There’s a lot to like about Hugo as a film. It has a really pleasing, old-timey feel to it that brought a smile to my face. I like the little things in the film such as Chloe Moretz’s portrayal of Isabelle as a girl who has a vocabulary beyond her years brought about by the many books she’s read. I like the characters that populate the station, such as the uptight Station Inspector who has a crush on the flower girl but is too shy to tell her. Then there’s the tubby commuter who wants to approach an aging widower but is kept at bay by her yapping doggie. There is a timeless storybook feel to these characters that seem so familiar, even if you can’t quite place where you recognize them from. They are in fact, referencing classic characters and scenes from Hollywood films of the past. Most movie goers won’t know or have seen Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! but when they see Hugo hanging off the minute hand of a giant clock they will be familiar with the image. And so it is with much of the film as Scorcese crams in plenty of nods and references to famous works.
As the story unfolds, what initially appears to be a tale of magic and fantasy gives way to an appreciation of movie magic and the birth of cinema. Ben Kingsley plays Papa Ben, one of the pioneers of movie making who has spent decades trying to put the memories of his time in Tinseltown behind him, but is eventually convinced by Hugo and Isabelle to take a trip down memory lane.
Hugo is a heart-warming film about appreciating a bygone era and the origins of film. It is made with obvious care by Scorcese who’s love of cinema history is well known (he used to give lectures on film at NYU in his heyday). His appreciation for his craft shines through and thats what makes this such a great film for anyone who shares in his passion.
Note: This film features a cameo from Christopher Lee, which is fitting since he is a walking piece of movie history having been in the industry a phenomenal eight decades and is almost as old as the history of film itself. If nothing else, people should watch Hugo for the fact that it may well be Lee’s last onscreen role. He is now ninety years old.