Few films enable you to walk out of the theater feeling like you can overcome life’s obstacles while delighting you at the same time. Such is the case with “Hugo” Martin Scorsese’s most recent film. It is, in a word, stunning. As I sat in the theater and the film began to play, my first thought was “this is alright. Not bad. Kind of interesting.” Something happened though as I watched this movie. Before I knew it, I realized I loved this film. It draws you in, and by the time the credits roll, you marvel at the wonder of it all. It is that beautiful.
Hugo tells the story of Hugo Cabret, (Asa Butterworth), a young orphan living within the clock system at the main rail station in France during the early 20th century. His father (Jude Law), a clock maker and curator, died in a horrific fiery accident at a museum, and young Hugo is whisked from his melancholy yet somehow joyful life with his beloved father to living with his drunk uncle among the clocks, and told only to bring what he values most. Those things are the automaton that his father found in the museum, and a notebook of his father’s sketches on how to get it to work. The machine, a little metal man filled with beautiful gears, pulleys and bolts, is able to write, but requires a heart shaped key to come to life. When his uncle disappears, it’s up to Hugo to keep the clocks running and to figure out how to resurrect his only friend. He must also steal food from vendors in the station while trying to avoid the ever watchful eye of the delightfully rigid Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who is all too eager to send orphans to the orphanage.
But when Hugo pilfers gears from the local station toy shop one day, he is caught by the toy maker (Ben Kinsley), who takes away not only the gears he stole but the notebook with the drawings created by his father. After meeting the toy shop’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), the two embark on an adventure to locate the notebook, fix the automaton and in so doing, discover that the toy maker is actually famed movie creator George Melies who was presumed dead after WWI and whose films were all destroyed. And the creator of Hugo’s wondrous machine.
Little Hugo, though tenacity and a fighting spirit, ends up with so much more than a notebook and a working metal man by the end of the film. He resurrects George’s soul, as well as helping to unite the Inspector with his beloved Lisette (Emily Mortimer), the flower merchant, and gives Isabelle a purpose, that of writer of tales, including Hugo’s.
Why does Hugo remain hiding in the walls like a little mouse, fixing the clocks without any appreciation from anyone? Why is he so obsessed with the notebook and the automaton? Fixing things is what he does. As he says, he imagines the world to be one big machine. And no machine has spare parts. Which means that he is not a spare part, and has a place in this world. And for that same reason, Isabelle has a place as well. The automaton and the notebook are also the last link he has with his father, and by fixing the machine, he can keep the spirit of his father alive.
The excellent performances delivered by every single person in the cast, the fine cinematography, and the quiet fortitude of the story deliver the type of cinematic experience rarely seen in films today. Butterworth is by far the most expressive young actor I have ever witnessed on screen. The look in his bright blue eyes speaks more powerfully than a dozen pages of script, ripping out your soul with his absolute earnestness. The artistry of film is presented as a way to live your life adventurously, to encourage and impact people, to inspire them to dream even when all seems lost. In this age of economic disaster, war, famine and plague, it is uplifting to know that dreams can come true, even if only in the movies.
As an artist, the film ignited something deep inside – the desire to create, to uplift, to encourage people through storytelling. I sat in the darken theater, thinking “this is what I do. I make movies. I can make something as beautiful and wondrous as Melies. I can impact people the way he did.” It creates the desire to aspire to make something greater than yourself, through collaborating with other people, to put on a show.
Scorsese, he of “Shutter Island,” “Goodfellas,” “Taxi Driver,” and a host of other classic films, proves once again why is one of the leading artists of the medium, (and delivers a good cameo as the Photographer). In an interview with The Daily Show, he expressed to Jon Stewart that he realized he had not made any films his young daughter could watch, and set out to make something that she too could enjoy.
And we are all the better for it.