“Hugo” based on the novel by Brian Selznick is a meticulously made labour of love by director Martin Scorsese, further demonstrating his extraordinary range with this, his first children’s film.
Following a tracking shot from an impossible distance through a bustling 1930 set Parisian train station to the titular character hidden within the station’s clock, we know we are in for a treat.
“Hugo” (Asa Butterfield) an orphan following the death of his father (Jude Law), an academic and repair man extraordinaire. Hugo manages to eke out an existence literally within the walls of the train station as he continues to wind the various station clocks for his Uncle Claude (Winstone), to prevent the absence of a parent being detected.
Stealing to eat, his path is hampered by the “Inspector” (Cohen Baron), dressed in a uniform of De Gaulle like splendor, complete with a leather clad leg following a war wound. The Inspector rounds up Orphan children within the station, spiriting them away to the authorities with quiet efficiency and no cause for regret. Chancing on the local toy shop within the station Hugo steals parts to continue his obsessive quest to rebuild the automaton left to him by his father, prior to his death.
The shop owner (Kingsley) has other ideas, despite his daughters (Moretz) attempts to moderate his behaviour, which unusually for a children’s film, commences with a scowl and threats and only moderates towards the very end of the film.
This will be like nothing else you have seen before, huge sets, towering clockwork inner workings, with sweeping panoramas all seamlessly integrated into a beautiful 3D world. Clearly Scorsese has been waiting for his 3D moment and his grasp and understanding of this new technique appears complete. Despite the modern techniques on display, the story is almost old fashioned in the telling but suits the material well.
The relationship between Hugo and the Toyshop owner grows from wary beginnings to a supportive but distant role, Hugo however befriends the daughter Isabelle, which allows him glimpses into the family’s life, leading to further revelations as to the real identity and history of Isabelle’s father. Meanwhile, Hugo introduces Isabelle, desperate for adventure, into his secret world.
The young friends occasionally interact with the stations bookshop owner, portrayed by Christopher Lee playing significantly against type as a gentle avuncular figure encouraging the children’s forays into reading.
The whole film is constructed and directed with so much obvious care that it almost feels like the film always existed and merely was merely waiting to be found. Scorsese draws on his obvious affection and respect for the cinematic art form, it’s birth and progress whilst in the process creating a love letter to the very art of cinema itself.
There are occasions when this moves into a slight director’s over indulgence but the overall effect is too winning for this to matter. There are some exquisitely created minor character scenes Frances De La Tour and Richard Griffiths, notably with a fine moment or two but the film rests on the young shoulders of Hugo and Isabelle, who manage to be convincing yet largely avoid “Cute Movie Moppet” syndrome.
The film is created in a hyper realistic world in the same way that “Amelie” existed in a recognizable but slightly unreal setting, both films based nominally in Paris. Cohen Baron is less annoying than usual and does well with a rather odd character, Kingsley is as strong as ever and Emily Mortimer provides her usual luminous presence.
Without doubt worth catching on the biggest screen possible to enjoy each lovingly created frame. Whilst not quite perfect, there is more care invested in the film than a dozen lazy sequels. The director even managing to squeeze in silent, black and white scenes of Harold Lloyd clinging to that famous clock, leaving little doubt of his continuing love affair with film.
Inventive and beautifully made, children will find much to enjoy although it may be a shock to see real people acting in real ways, after the recent movie diet of animated rabbits, macaws and dancing penguins.
Parents with even a passing interest in the movies will realize this is a classic in the making.