The perfect not-for-children children’s film
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Consider this review the disclaimer that should run before any and all screenings of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. This film is, first and foremost, not for children. It does not cater to a fast-fast digital generation of young viewers weaned on Japanese anime, shooter-style videogame perspectives or teen soap opera inappropriately marketed to pre-tweens and tweens.
To be perfectly honest, Hugo probably isn’t suitable for contemporary adult audiences. With Hugo, Scorsese has completely indulged his inner child, the wildly imaginative free spirit in lovewith the dawn of the age of moving pictures, that initial time of wonder and magic, when children and adults found themselves ensorcelled by the spells and tricks of showmen like George Melies (Ben Kingsley) who dreamed of life under the sea and rocket ships blasting off and landing in the eye of the man on the moon.
Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is a young boy living in a Parisian train station, abandoned by his uncle (Ray Winstone), the guardian who takes him in after the death of his beloved father (Jude Law). The boy, schooled in the science of clock maintenance, has an automaton with missing parts, and the belief that if he is somehow able to fix it, he will receive a message from his father. Hugo dashes about the train station, darting out from the cracks and crevices, crawling and climbing the dizzying heights hidden behind the walls, and eventually hooking up with Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), a young spitfire who proves to be just as game for adventure as Hugo.
The mystery, simple as it is, fuels this marvelous 3D affair, but it is thanks to the effects that this film has life, which makes it feel like Scorsese has pulled off a magic trick that is all his own. He has shrunk us all down and placed us in a carefully designed Parisian snow globe and gently shaken it up for us. The snowflakes and the characters, from the ever-vigilant Station Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen) eager to snatch up orphans to the waif-like flower peddler (Emily Mortimer) who has captured the Inspector’s wandering attention, and a thousand other details spring to life in ways that, unfortunately, will seem corny to this jaded generation.
Oddly enough though, as much as Hugo harkens back to the past, one that is unfamiliar to audiences today, it also should offer a fleeting sense of déjà vu for more recent moviegoers, links to a peer of Scorsese who has trafficked in rousing adventures with broad sentimental streaks. That would be Steven Spielberg with his own kids’ fantasy waiting in the wings (The Adventures of Tintin), although Scorsese seems, despite seizing upon Spielbergian tropes (the automaton recalls the story of the robot who dreamed of being a boy in AI or the orphaned Hugo, yet another child seeking a family), far more capable of staying true to the inspiration of his cinematic roots. Not once does Scorsese cheat with easy nods to more contemporary crowd-pleasing antics – instead we get beautifully rendered homages to Harold Lloyd and re-creations of the sets and filming of those Melies classics – and in the end, by imbuing old fashioned storytelling with current visual panache, he helps to more fully realize the magic of those by-gone illusionists.
And so, for a precious few, Hugo will be a secret treasure; a message from the past able to set hearts free.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.