Lawrence Person: While reviewing The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, I jokingly suggested in passing that Terry Gilliam should make a serious crime drama and Martin Scorsese should make a Gilliamesque fantasy. Little did I suspect Scorsese would actually take me up on the offer…
Howard Waldrop: Hugo is Martin Scorsese’s best movie. (But then, it’s about a lonely kid and a forgotten chapter of movie history, so how could he go wrong?)
LP: I’m going to disagree, ever so slightly. I still think Goodfellas is Scorsese’s best film, and I would want to see Casino and The Departed again before ranking Hugo ahead of them. But it’s certainly among his top five, and I think it’s a more consistently excellent film than either Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, which is no mean feat.
HW: Hugo is orphaned when his watchmaker-father dies in a fire, and he is taken in by his drunken uncle, who minds the clocks in a Paris train station in the late 1920s or early 30s. Before his father died, they were trying to fix a broken automaton brought home from the museum where his father worked.
Hugo had been stealing clockwork parts from the station’s toy and candy booth, run by what seems a mean old man. His granddaughter (Hugo assumes) Isabelle sometimes helps out at the booth. (The first 10 minutes of the film are Hugo watching things in the train station from behind faces of clocks and access tunnels of the secret clock worker’s apartment in the station’s walls.) This tells you what you need to know and gets you up to speed about characters and interactions. Especially what seems to be (again) the mean station inspector (a wounded WWI veteran with an iron-brace knee mechanism) whose delight seems to be throwing homeless kids into the waiting police wagon bound for the state orphanage. The inspector is assisted by his Doberman, Maximillian.
The period costuming and details are wonderful, and Scorsese uses a moving swooping camera in the opening shot through the busy station, better than he ever has before, even in Goodfellas. The movie follows the true record about a little-known incident of film history, except Hugo and other characters are fictional.
Nothing, it goes on to appear, is exactly what it seemed at the beginning. Hugo has been taking the clockwork toy parts in an effort to fix the automaton, which is a writing automaton, because he thinks it will bring a message from his dead father. The mean old man who runs the toy-and-candy booth at the station turns out to be an embittered former magician and filmmaker, now virtually forgotten. Isabelle is his goddaughter, taken in when her parents died. The station inspector is a deep Romantic with a leitmotif squeaking leg. Even Maximillian has some loveable qualities, when not chasing orphans.
LP: The film is steeped in successive, interlocking romances: the romance of mechanical automation, the romance of film, the romance of books, the romance of Paris, and even, every now and then, the romance of romance. It’s a lovingly crafted homage to the bygone era of 1920s Paris, and the story pays its own homage to the pre-war Paris just past.
HW: There are some incredible performances here. Ben Kingsley as Grandpa Georges is chasing another Academy Award—he has subsumed himself totally in the role. Sacha Baron Cohen is the station inspector, and shows he can act. Christopher Lee is a bookshop owner who helps Isabelle and Hugo on their “adventure.” Even the kids are good, unusual for a family movie.
HW: You have to watch Scorsese every minute. In the opening swoop through the station you pass the station band, with a guitar player who looks like Django Reinhart and we go around a table where James Joyce sits, without any attention being called to them.
LP: And no, that isn’t actually Johnny Depp playing Reinhart (despite the fact that Depp co-produced the movie), but Emil Lager does look a hell of a lot like him…
HW: This film is Scorsese’s celebration of everything he loves: the movies, kids out having adventures of the kind he couldn’t have in his illness-plagued adolescence. Joy in sheer acting, great sets (a whole living train station in the 1920s, the clockworks within the walls). It pays homage to the forgotten pioneer of films, Georges Mélies; it’s the anti-“Ed Wood,” and ends with the celebration held when Mélies was rediscovered and his films shown.
There’s a scene where the middle-aged librarian from the National Film Library remembers a day when his uncle took him to Mélies’ film studio while they were filming a version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that’s as magical as anything ever done in the movies, cheesy costumes, sets and all.
LP: Love of classic films shows up just about everywhere in Hugo. The two kids are seen watching Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last in a theater, and our protagonist ends up reenacting the famous clock sequence.
The sets, costumes, art direction, and cinematography are all first-rate. This was reported to be a very expensive film, but Scorsese has used every penny to create a gorgeous and engrossing world. The clockwork mechanisms are wonderful to behold; if someone hadn’t already coined the “clockpunk” neologism, they’d have to do it after this film.
Because it’s (at its heart) a children’s fantasy and an homage to the magic of movies, this is the first film I’ve seen where the 3D didn’t feel like an annoying gimmick. (The only thing that didn’t work for me was the CGI snow, which looked like flat white dots rather than snow.)
If there’s any justice in the world, Hugo should have a lot of staying power. (It’s not Scorsese’s fault that tween girls prefer sparkly vampires.) This is an honest-to-God family film that’s not patronizing or condescending in the least. And unless you’re actually allergic to even the best heartwarming fare (“The milk of human kindness makes me bilious!”), you should go out and see it.
After you’ve seen it (and you should), for a final treat look at the picture in the IMDB entry for Ben Kingsley’s character, then pick your jaw up off the floor.
HW: Scorsese proves that if you love movies enough, you can even overcome a PG rating. I can’t recommend this film enough.