Hugo is a wonderful film. It’s heartwarming, magical, enchanting, captivating, and, most surprising, educational. It’s possible to be seen by every member of a family, from the very young, who will be held by its imagination, characters, and thrilling scenes, and by the old, who will appreciate exactly what it’s trying to say and be about. It’s accessible, but not pandering. It will be most appreciated if you have some sort of knowledge of film history — you’ll “get” the references and loving recreations of classic silent films, for instance — but if you don’t have that, don’t worry: The film will teach you, and you’ll want to watch it again right away to see what you missed.
It’s hard to ignore the mind that’s behind Hugo. The director here is Martin Scorsese, who has an affinity for the silent movie era, the preservation of old films, and certain directors. This may be his passion project. Yes, a children’s film is the passion of the director behind Goodfellas and countless other films that should not be viewed by those under a certain age. I’ll let that sink in for a minute. This is unlike any other Scorsese film, and it actually might be one of his best.
From the outset, Hugo seems like it’s going to be simple, and very kid friendly. We are introduced to our lead, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a child living “in the walls” of the Gare Montparnasse train station. His father was killed in a fire, his drunken uncle disappeared, so Hugo is left to keep the clocks of the station working from behind the scenes, while avoiding the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) from catching him and sending him to an orphanage.
Hugo’s father left behind an automaton, a robot that can write something if it has all of its gears in place. It’s broken, so Hugo spends his free time looking for parts around the station. He believes his father left him a message. One day, he’s caught shoplifting a part by Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), who becomes an obstacle to get past. His goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), wants to help him out, and they soon become good friends. You can see how, at this point, it seems like it will set-up as your typical family movie.
It is not, however, apparent exactly how old movies and a famous director become the topic of focus for the second half. To reveal exactly what happens would be spoiling some of the joy from the film aficionados out there, but suffice to say that the automaton is not the end goal of the film. It involves an aging man whose best years are behind him and no longer feels necessary, an education on this man, and many homages to the silent film era, including watching large portions of movies (sometimes the entirety) from this period in history.
As it turns out, Hugo is not the most important character. He is a catalyst, someone who sets the events in motion, but not a whole lot changes for him. He comes and goes like he moves through the station, and he has a major impact, but only one thing in his life is changed by the end. Instead, the movies are the film’s true passion, just like they are for its director. You can see the love as soon as Hugo begins telling Isabelle how the first movie his father saw was A Trip to the Moon, even though Hugo doesn’t know that’s its name.
If you don’t know the names of the Lumière brothers, Georges Méliès, Buster Keaton, or so on, and haven’t seen any of their films, you’re still going to be able to enjoy Hugo. The only thing that will change is that you won’t get many of the references until after the film explains them to you. You’ll want to go back and see the film again to catch what you missed.
Like many of those that he pays tribute to, Scorsese uses a relatively new technology in a way that is appropriate and somewhat innovative. Instead of using 3D as a gimmick, he uses it as a part of the story. When we see L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, and then we show an audience’s reaction to it, the 3D actually enhances what we’re seeing, separating the audience from the screen. While watching Hugo in 3D might not be necessary, it’s actually beneficial, which is something that cannot be said about the vast majority of 3D movies.
For someone like me, Hugo gets more interesting as it progresses. It’s a slow-moving movie, sure, but the things it reveals and the way it does that is magnificent. I wasn’t bored for a single frame of this gorgeous movie. It even gets emotional — although not for Hugo like you might expect before going in. You’ll see what I mean. If there’s to be a film nowadays that will make you appreciate or at least become interested in silent films, Hugo might just succeed at doing so.
Hugo is a fantastic family film that doesn’t pander to the youngest audience, but continues to be accessible to all audiences. Whether it be for its gorgeous presentation, interesting characters, love for the movies, or well-told story, everyone can find a reason to watch Hugo, even if it does move slowly. It’s never boring, but it is more of a slow burn. It is absolutely something that should be watched, regardless of your fascination with film history; Hugo might just convince you to change your mind.