Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011): USA

Reviewed by Alex Canzano. Viewed at The Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

It was hard for many fans to believe that Martin Scorsese would be directing a PG rated, family-feature, starring child actors and all in 3D. Hugo marks a huge stray from the master-director’s body of work but celebrates the very heart of the director in a way never seen before. The raving critics are enchanted by just about every aspect of the film, nominated for eleven Oscars at the 84th annual Academy Awards, making it the most highly acclaimed 3D epic in cinematic history thus far. Speaking of, the story itself acts like an introductory history lesson to the origins of cinema- featuring a considerable amount of clips from some very noteworthy silent films and commemorating the legendary life of early filmmaker George Melies.

The story, adapted by John Logan from Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Calbaret, is set in 1930’s Paris, in a colossal railway station, where a young orphan named Hugo Calbaret stealthily dwells within the terminal walls, sliding in and out while maintaining its clocks. Hugo’s father, played by Jude Law, was a watchmaker who took the time to teach his son a good deal of his craft before dying in a museum that had caught fire. Hugo was then taken into the care of his drunken uncle who eventually abandoned his job at the station and left the responsibility to his fatherless nephew. Hugo’s daily routine consists of snatching food and miscellaneous automaton components while trying not to run into or raise the station inspector’s suspicions- a comedic, slapstick performance from Sacha Baren Cohen as station inspector.

Before his father was killed, they had bonded over the project of restoring a mysterious automaton that they would find parts for in order for it to function. Hugo now carries on his fathers work and continues the hobby alone by lifting specific parts required for the automaton from a toy/magic shop located in the terminal and owned by a grumpy old Ben Kingsly.

When the old man catches the thief red handed he takes his notebook containing all the blueprints for the automaton and keeps it in exchange for Hugo’s help around the shop. Hugo begins to develop a close relationship with the shop owner’s niece Isabelle, and together they begin an investigation into her grandfather’s past life. They soon discover that her grandfather is none other than George Melies who is one of the most historically significant silent filmmakers. The film then jumps back and forth between past and present to tell the amazing saga of George Melies; and how his life’s work was almost lost in oblivion.

[The film makes references to factual details of Melies’s actual life and career as a filmmaker. Like in the film, Melies was found at the Gare Montparnasse railway station in Paris, where he owned a small toy/magic shop called Confiserie Et Jouets. He was discovered by the editor of Cine-Journal who then helped find a small portion of the director’s films and organized re-screenings that brought redemption to his career in the critic’s eye. By the year 1925, George Melies was bankrupt and mostly forgotten in the film community. He had sold most of his films to the French government to be burned and melted into boot-heels for soldiers to help the war-effort. Also seen in the film is his studio, which was made entirely of glass so that the sunlight would shine through. Before trying his talents in film, he was a popular magician and was said to have built more than a few automatons.]1

Perhaps the biggest reference of all to the filmmaker is the astonishingly sophisticated digital effects used in the film and brought to the audience in a spectacular 3D experience- George Melies was, after all, an early pioneer of several common camera tricks, which are to some extent still used today through different means. Hugo in this sense gives credit to the originators of special effects in film (especially George Melies) by showing how far the art has progressed over time, and if not for these experiments in early cinema, would not have reached the height of capabilities they have today.

Martin Scorsese, now in his later years, felt that in this stage of his life it would be appropriate for him to reflect back to his own history and childhood by making a picture that is about searching for one’s place in the puzzle of life and being accepted into a second family which for him would be the film community. The critics and I agree that the film is beyond exceptional and appeals to an audience of all ages- including Scorsese’s young daughter and anyone interested in the history of filmmaking.


1 What Martin Scorsese’s Hugo Taught Us About the Grandfather of Science Fiction Film, Georges Méliès by Meredith Woerner

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