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Arts and Culture

‘Hugo’: Resistance Is Futile

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Posted on Dec 5, 2011
imdb.com

Asa Butterfield, left, co-stars with Ben Kingsley in “Hugo,” a new film by Martin Scorsese.

By Richard Schickel

“Hugo” cost somewhere between $150 million and $170 milllion to produce—not counting those pesky millions more for prints and advertising. It is probably the most money ever spent on a movie intended primarily for children. I was prepared to dislike it, sight unseen—wretched excess and all that—so you can imagine my surprise (and your own, when, as you inevitably must, you catch up with it) when I found myself utterly captivated by Martin Scorsese’s film.

All that money is up there on the screen, mostly in the form of a humongous Parisian train station, wherein a little orphan boy named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) keeps its many clocks functioning and eludes the station’s baleful chief inspector (a superbly melancholic/enigmatically angry Sacha Baron Cohen). Eventually the lad befriends the withdrawn and bitter man who runs a toy shop in the station. He turns out to be George Méliès (Ben Kingsley), the pioneering maker of fantasy films, most of which seem to be as lost and forgotten as he is. Mostly through Hugo’s efforts, he is rehabilitated and restored to his rightful historical place.

This much of the story, retold in Brian Selznick’s wondrous book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” is in broad outline historically true, and conscientiously retold in John Logan’s very fine screenplay. But that only hints at the magic of this film, which could so easily have been no more than ponderously faithful to its source. It seemed an unlikely project for Scorsese, especially to people who tended to forget that from “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” through “After Hours” and “Kundun” he had made plenty of pictures that did not involve gangsters and brutal killings. They failed to consider the sheer energy of his filmmaking, his taste not just for complexity of action, but of motivation as well. “Hugo’s” vast set, and the need to fill it not just with motion, but emotion, simply seems to have stirred him to a vast, yet easeful, inventiveness.

There’s all kinds of stuff in this movie—an enigmatic automaton, for instance, the rehabilitation of Baron Cohen’s embittered and crippled character, the development of Chloe Grace Moretz’s delightful Isabelle as fully functioning girlfriend to Hugo—and, of course, this being a Scorsese film, a charming tribute to the delights of early filmmaking. These elements are not merely mentioned in passing; the themes that these plot points carry are all fully worked out. Which accounts for some of the film’s length but does not account for the way it flies past without flurry, but with increasing fascination.

It’s tempting to call this Scorsese’s best work, but I’ll forgo that ultimate superlative. What I will say, is that “Hugo” reminds us that when the spirit moves him, he is a protean filmmaker, a man capable of great complexities of plot and character rendered with great clarity and without straining. As this peculiarly disappointing movie season winds down in more than usual frustration, this oxymoron—a kid picture on an epic scale—somewhat to everyone’s surprise, is being mentioned for (and even winning) some prizes. I am the author of a recent book on Scorsese, and therefore obviously predisposed to his work; I don’t however, think that disqualifies my admiration for “Hugo,” which has plenty of perhaps more objective critics on its side.

As movies go, “Hugo” is admittedly somewhat of an odd duck. But delight is delight, and complication is to be treasured wherever you find it. If the film can overcome adult resistance to it and encourage repeat viewing (a must for pictures as expensive as this one), it more than deserves its accolades. And, I suspect, the undying affection of a lot of people who didn’t know, going in, how deeply smitten they would be by this unlikely offering.


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Egomet Bonmot's avatar

By Egomet Bonmot, December 9, 2011 at 2:00 pm Link to this comment

Scorsese, Lynch and Clint Eastwood practice transcendental meditation.  Scorsese discovered it late in life.

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By weindeb, December 8, 2011 at 12:45 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

My wife and I hurried to this movie, both of us suspecting (knowing) we’d like it.
We didn’t, we loved it! Perhaps I’m off on this, but I suspect HUGO would come
over just as well were it not in 3-D, which for me at least was only an added and
acceptable bonus. The quintessential homage to George Méliès, running invisibly
through much of the film, is splendid in its aesthetic and nostalgic implications.
And yes, leading us to and through it all, the two children take us by the hand in a
zany and breathtaking adventure of sharing and empathy. Scorsese’s best? Maybe.
Certainly it’ll be up there. I was wondering, too, if many of the people fortunate
enough to see this movie thought about some of Woody Allen’s conscious forays
into the genius of other film makers and the debts owed them.

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By cherilyn, December 5, 2011 at 10:55 pm Link to this comment

I hadn’t planned on seeing it but now I will. Thanks for review.

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By rumblingspire, December 5, 2011 at 7:57 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

i am still fascinated by the hand colored silent movies Méliès made and were seen (by me) for the first time Moving on a big screen. the marvelous stage within a green house.

Scorsese always delivers.  a beautiful movie!

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By lane08, December 5, 2011 at 7:04 pm Link to this comment

Well, I’ll say it: It’s Scorcese’s best film.

And I too was prepared to not like it sight unseen. And I’m no fan of 3D, as well.

That said, however, it’s also Georges Melies, who deserves half the credit for being
the perfect muse Scorcese needed to convey his greatest, 100 year long, love
affair. People who have seen Hugo will know exactly what I mean.

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sciencehighway's avatar

By sciencehighway, December 5, 2011 at 2:16 pm Link to this comment

I saw Hugo more than a week ago, and it continues to haunt and enhance the clockwork inside my own skull. I realize how premature it is to say this having only seen the film once (and in the wake of Goodfellas, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), but I believe Hugo to be Scorsese’s masterpiece. And yes, this 59-year-old filmmaker and lifelong Melies affectionado (having done two public TV documentaries touching on on his work over the years) will definitely be going back to experience this enchanting work again during the holidays.

Not for nothing but Hugo also represents the most thoughtful use of 3-D I’ve ever seen, and my wife and I are no fans of the format. (Not nearly enough characters available here to detail our reasons but we even disliked Avatar until we were able to screen it via 2-D blu-ray.) That said, we’re looking forward to spending more time with Hugo theatrically in order to bask in the brilliant, multi-dimensional wonder of Scorsese’s, Logan’s and Selznick’s tale before bringing it home to regular (albeit 2-D) screenings on our 50” sometime next spring.

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LocalHero's avatar

By LocalHero, December 5, 2011 at 2:00 pm Link to this comment

It’s a wonderful, captivating film but so is “The Artist” which you dismissed last week.

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