I confess that until very recently, I had never heard of Georges Melies. In fact, I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of people today — even among those who consider themselves hardcore film buffs — have never heard of Georges Melies. This is unacceptable.
Back in a time when films were just brief moving pictures without any point or purpose, Melies was among the first to make movies that told narratives. He invented the very concept of scenes that could be stitched together in a chronological order. Far more importantly, the advent of moving pictures was only a couple of decades old when Melies discovered the classic “stop trick” effect. A professional inventor and stage magician, he’d later go on to experiment with multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, and dissolve cuts. He even dabbled in color films, with each frame of his movies painted over by hand. All of these innovations — far ahead of their time — led to advances in special effects that would change the filmmaking craft forever. That’s right, folks: Georges Melies invented special effects. If you ever found yourself swept away by a work of movie magic, you owe this guy a flower for his grave.
Alas, Melies was also one of the first filmmakers to be screwed over for want of copyright protection and unpaid royalties. His film company was ultimately forced into bankruptcy and his film copies were destroyed to make materials for WWI. Melies made over 500 films in his career, but only a precious few can still be seen today. Easily the most famous of them is A Trip to the Moon, which can now be found on YouTube beside some other examples of Melies’ work. Though these effects can now be done by anyone who has a computer and a camera phone, these movies still look damn good over 100 years later.
One last note on the subject: In 1996, the Smashing Pumpkins released this classic music video, which was designed as an homage to Melies’ films. This imitation, as well as the genuine articles, are all highly recommended.
This brings us to 2011, with the release of Hugo. It’s a 3D children’s film directed by Martin Scorsese, which is a very intriguing oddity in itself. Then Scorsese went and sweetened the pot with such impressive actors as Chloe Moretz, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law, and Sasha Baron Cohen. This would all be good enough, but here’s the kicker: This movie was specially made as a love letter to movies, particularly the older and obsolete films made by visionaries like Melies. In fact, the cinemagic maestro is actually a character in this film, played by none other than Ben Kingsley.
Now, I normally pay for the movies I review with Regal passes that are given to me by friends and family. Not today. This time, I paid out of my own pocket for a 3D showing at the Living Room Theaters. Hyped by critical acclaim and my own sky-high expectations, I was gambling that this was going to be a good time and going all-in. And oh, how it paid off.
There’s so much going on in this film that I have a hard time knowing where to start. The film is primarily set in a Paris train station, sometime between the two World Wars. From there, I’ll have to break this story down into multiple storylines if I’m going to get through it all.
Our hero is the eponymous Hugo Cabret, played by a very talented newcomer named Asa Butterfield. He and his father (Jude Law) are a pair of clockmakers who start repairing a machine that the father found in an attic somewhere. Neither have any idea what the machine does exactly, just that it’s a clockwork robot such as magicians used to build and use in their acts way back when. Anyway, the father tragically dies in a fire, and Hugo is sent off to live with his uncle (Ray Winstone). The latter turns out to be a drunken piece of trash who forces Hugo to live in the train station and maintain the clocks there. All the while, Hugo has to steal food to keep on living and steal parts to keep working on the automaton.
Right off the bat, all these story beats should ring a bell. The hero is an orphan, he’s poor, he’s an outcast, and he has a prodigious talent. He came from a very loving father who mentored him before dying tragically. And naturally, the kind and loving father had an impossibly dickish brother whom our hero is stuck with. Oh, and the orphan is left with something of his father’s that becomes the crux of the story.
Yeah, this is an archetypal kids’ movie, all right.
This movie is a fairy tale, and it’s beautifully presented as such. Even through the darkened 3D glasses, the production design is bright and colorful. It’s very recognizable as a 1920s setting, but heightened to be much more whimsical and frightening. The train station’s clockwork is probably my favorite example of the set design, as it clearly looks very dangerous even as Hugo weaves through it like his own playground. The atmosphere is helped by the cinematography, which uses that time-honored trick of placing the camera at a child’s eye level or lower. In short, this movie presents a real-world setting as filtered through a child’s imagination. Wonderfully done.
Speaking of imagination, there’s Chloe Moretz’ character. She plays Isabelle, who befriends Hugo early in the film. Yes, she’s a love interest, but the film is good enough not to push that angle too far or too quickly. The story also avoids pushing the two of them apart for some contrived reason, which was very refreshing. It feels like a natural friendship, all the more so because Isabelle is a very strong character in her own right. She’s a kid who reads a lot, which has blessed her with a tremendous imagination, a great thirst for adventure, and a huge vocabulary that she loves to show off. Once again, Moretz turns in an amazing performance with a wonderful character.
Next, I should discuss the villain of the piece, played by Sacha Baron Cohen. Gustav is the station inspector, crippled in the war and partnered with an unreliable hound. The guy is a bumbling idiot, and he’s very sensitive about his bad leg, so he compensates for his shortcomings by immersing himself in his job to the point of being an asshole.
Cohen is great at playing a clown, so it should come as no surprise that Gustav looks and acts just like any other comedy relief villain at first. However, Gustav turns out to be much more complex than that. Somewhere around his initial meet-cute with Emily Mortimer’s character, it becomes clear that the guy is an asshole who doesn’t necessarily want to be an asshole. The guy has some serious emotional pain, and it’s dealt with in a character arc that beautifully represents the film’s theme of redemption without being overly preachy or sappy about it.
There are a couple of other characters here and there, of course. Christopher Lee brings his typical awesomeness as a librarian, and Richard Griffiths has a cute romance side plot with fellow Harry Potter alum Frances de la Tour. These characters don’t get a lot of screen time, and the latter side plot barely has any effect on the main narrative, but they all do a lot to help sell the illusion that this is a bustling train station. People work here, people meet here, and so on.
Still, the real star of this movie is Ben Kingsley. The relationship between Hugo and Grandmaster Melies is the main driving force of the story, and the latter is easily the most dynamic character in the film. This storyline tells of an old, broken down man who considers himself obsolete until he rediscovers his long-forgotten relevance and joie de vivre. It’s a beautiful story of redemption and emotional growth.
Moreover, Melies and his works are among this movie’s many devices for exploring the magic of stories. Books are prominently featured, though movies are naturally the key focus. This is a film that’s very much in love with the magic of film, and even more so with the mechanisms, wires, and sleight-of-hand that goes into bringing spectacular fantasies to life.
Setting the film in the ’20s or so was a brilliant way to examine this point. Certainly, movies are no less magical now, but it’s become easy to forget that amidst the awards campaigning, the gossip-mongering, the prominence of CGI, the abundance of behind-the-scenes featurettes, and the billions of dollars publicly at stake. Setting the movie in a time before all of that, back when movies were just prominent enough to be readily accessible while still being new enough to amaze anyone, was a brilliant way to keep that sense of wonder intact while stripping away everything else about movies.
Alas, as much as I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, I do have some nits to pick. First of all, there’s a notebook that’s given tremendous importance as the film’s catalyst, yet it’s never seen outside of the first act. That was a storyline just clamoring for a conclusion that never came. Second, the film raises a symbolic point comparing people to machines. The point is made by specifically comparing Melies — who’s lost his purpose — to a broken machine. I understand what the movie was trying to say with this point, but something about the comparison disturbs me a touch.
By far my biggest nitpick comes at the third act turning point, which is marked by two dream sequences in quick succession. 1. The only cliche that’s lazier and more improbable than a dream sequence is a dream sequence within a dream sequence (unless maybe that’s part of the premise, a la Inception). 2. Neither one of the dreams has any effect on the narrative, so they’re both completely pointless. 3. The movie’s most outlandish uses of CGI are in this dream sequence. I fail to understand how this movie — which is basically a love letter to old-school practical effects — would set aside two entire scenes for excessive and blatant computer-generated images.
Nevertheless, Hugo is a marvelous blast from the past. The actors all turn in wonderful work, the visuals (including the slightly gimmicky 3D) are all beautiful, and the screenplay is uncharacteristically good for a John Logan product. This is a fairy tale that’s harmless and fantastic enough for kids of any age while being intellectual and entertaining enough for adults.
Bottom line: This isn’t a film to be missed.