“Come and dream with me”
I loved Hugo. I saw it twice in the theatre. Most people loved Hugo, but not everyone. The film has its share of detractors. What is their problem with it? Here are two of the most common complaints I’ve read: It is less a well-told story, than a plea for film preservation. It is too slow moving for its young target audience. Huh. Must our notions of good storytelling be so restrictive? Do we really expect so little from our children?
I think it is a mark of successful storytelling when the themes of a story are inextricably linked to plight of characters and, ultimately, humanity. Why do thematic concerns need to be merely decorative? The ideas of a story, if well integrated and purposeful, should be as intimate as tears, a smile, or a kiss. Yes, the film is a plea for film preservation, but it is also a plea for the preservation of our shared history. We didn’t get to where we are today by magic. We stand, so to speak, on the shoulders of giants, and credit must be given where it is due. The film wants us to be aware of history, and to realize that our own personal journeys are only to be fully understood when seen as an extension of the journeys of those that come before us.
Hugo is an orphan living in a Paris train station, scavenging for food while busying himself with maintaining the station’s clocks—a trade he learned from his late uncle, with whom he was forced to live after the death of his father (also a clockmaker). Hidden away in the station—avoiding the authorities that would throw him into an orphanage—he watches the lives of the damaged and broken people around him. His life is eventually entwined with that of a shopkeeper and his daughter. The shopkeeper turns out to be George Melies, one of the great early filmmakers, whose journey is intimately linked to Hugo’s.
As Hugo discovers his link to the past, it gives him a sense of purpose in the present. The core idea of the film—and one I found very resonant—is our basic human need to have a purpose.
“Maybe that’s why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do… Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose… it’s like you’re broken.”
The boy’s vision of the world as a giant machine, with each and every one of us an integral part, is expressed in almost every shot of Hugo. The imagery is chock-full of machinery. There are the huge grinding gears of the clocks in the station, the tiny springs and sprockets of toys. The film even opens with a majestic aerial shot of Paris that fades up from a vast clockwork—wheels and cogs cross-fading to reveal their similarity to the bustling traffic of turn-of-the-century Paris.
The film does not share the pandering sensibility of typical children’s fare—where pop-culture references serve as insight, and wise-ass animated animals throw sassy one-liners at us with celebrity voices. Hugo actually asks its audience to sit and listen, and discover how something that happened before they were born might have some place in their lives. We should applaud Scorsese for giving children some credit—nurturing their attention spans, and acknowledging their budding intelligence. Most popular entertainments for children are a reckless display of obnoxious personalities burping and farting at each other until the sappy point of the story is made clear—some zany and bumbling boob contorts his face into a droopy blob and preaches to us about… whatever. Hugo is—thank goodness!—closer to Pixar than recent Disney. It is sincere without schmaltz, funny without flatulence—a spectacle that is stylish and whimsical rather than brash and unrefined.
I have to confess that I may never have shown an interest in Hugo had it not been for the intriguing nature of the pairing—Martin Scorsese and 3D! For years, I’ve considered 3D something of a cheap gimmick. While I am not a fan of most of his work, I recognize that Scorsese is a filmmaker of some integrity, known for his expert craftsmanship and unflinching eye—namely for violence, both intimate and epic. Hugo is a bold departure from his oeuvre. If he was using 3D technology, I figured it must be integral to the story and not just for hollow spectacle. And I was right!
Part of what sells Hugo is Scorsese’s obvious passion. He uses the 3D technology to re-invent the magic and grandeur that Melies’ films gave to audiences of the early 1900s. Rather than jab at the audience, Scorsese uses the added depth of 3D to craft an intimate and immersive experience. Objects do not protrude aggressively for cheap effect. Instead, he fills the frame with incredible detail. The air is constantly alive with particles of dust, snow or vapour dancing through the frame. Every shot is a small poem, rich and persuasive, a masterwork of texture and composition. The expert framing is certainly self-aware, but who cares?! It’s stunning! It’s artistry! The damn film is about artistry! Scorsese has expertly infused every element with grace and purpose, and he wants us to savour each moment. This is a tribute to true Cinema, which is far more rare and precious than you might think given the abundance of movies flooding the theatres, the air-waves and cyberspace.
Hugo is not a groundbreaking film, nor does it claim to be. Scorsese has already established himself as a pioneer—Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are iconic, and opened a pathway for filmmakers to depict graphic violence that is potent and meaningful. Hugo is a tribute film, a thank-you from one iconic filmmaker to his forebear. Scorsese’s use of 3D technology is a conscious referencing of the innovations devised by the earliest filmmakers. Scorsese knows film—he knows film history—and he wants to share it with us. Sure, he could have made a documentary. But he didn’t. He told us a story instead. And this is a very old, very valuable, and very effective mode of communication. Since we developed self-consciousness, we have told each other stories. Hugo is one more, and a good one.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: John Logan (screenplay), Brian Selznick (book)
Stars: Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee