In attempting to make his first film for all ages, Martin Scorsese has fashioned one for the ages. Simultaneously classical and modern, populist but also unapologetically personal, “Hugo” flagrantly defies the mind-numbing quality of most contempo kidpics and instead rewards patience, intellectual curiosity and a budding interest in cinema itself. Given the sheer expense of this lavish production and its marketing, Scorsese’s playfully didactic, nouveau-Dickensian adventure could spell a money-losing gamble in the near term; wind the clock forward half a century, however, and “Hugo’s” timeless qualities should distinguish it as an achievement with the style and substance to endure.
Based on Brian Selznick’s illustrated children s novel, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” the story couldn t be more different from Scorsese’s previous efforts, not least of all because it reps the director’s first “deepie,” to resurrect a bit of vintage slanguage for 3D pics. Still, anyone familiar with Scorsese’s obsessions will instantly recognize why he felt compelled to adapt such a unique book, enlisting his usual team of powerhouse craftsmen to realize his vision, while working once again on a scale enabled by producer/champion Graham King (“Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator”).
“Hugo” tells the story of a wide-eyed orphan (Asa Butterfield, more wooden than he was in “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”) who’s desperately alone in the world until he discovers a father figure in ornery old toy seller Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley), whom cineastes will recognize as one of the fathers of film itself. How the great Melies who created the indelible image of a rocket embedded in the eye of the moon came to spend his retirement selling toys in a Paris train station, and what role young Hugo can play in giving his life meaning, are among the urgent mysteries revealed in the film’s second half, which Scorsese uses to inspire audiences on the importance of remembering how the medium began.
For roughly the first hour, however, Melies true identity doesn’t factor, leaving the film to focus on the plight of its young protagonist. Lurking out of sight within the walls of the Gare Montparnasse (a massive set elaborately designed by Dante Ferretti), where he works as unofficial timekeeper of the station’s many clocks, Hugo escapes every so often to snatch a hot croissant or nick the odd widget needed for his pet project, repairing an automaton his late father (Jude Law, seen only briefly) rescued from the attic of a nearby museum.
Scorsese introduces Hugo’s world via a series of virtuoso camera moves, seamlessly enhanced by 3D and state-of-the-art CG (notice how Scorsese uses steam and floating particles to create a sense of dimension throughout). In one shot, Robert Richardson’s dynamic camera swoops down from the skies and between rows of passengers disembarking the trains outdoors, pushing its way confidently through the crowd, into the station and up to a clockface, where a pair of big blue eyes peer down on the scene below.
Those peepers, which at times seem to fill the entire frame, invite auds into a spirit of shared voyeurism, as Hugo spies on the characters passing through each day with the same fascination with which we all watch movies. In perhaps the film’s trickiest feat (just one of many expertly navigated by editor Thelma Schoonmaker), “Hugo” manages to alternate between its central story and a series of neat subplots among the station regulars.
There’s the ruthless inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) determined to keep his domain free of fatherless urchins, yet smitten with Lisette (Emily Mortimer), who sells flowers a few paces from the pastry shop where Mme. Emilie (Frances de la Tour) sits, her dachshund a constant obstacle to the amorous M. Frick (Richard Griffiths). Cohen in particular brings the vaudevillian quality of early silent comics to his role, as in a bit that finds him swerving to avoid upsetting a six-tier cake, only to plant his foot in the nearest cello.
Howard Shore’s whimsical score sets the tone as Hugo surveys these dynamics, playfully taking its cue from the resident cafe musicians. For fear of discovery, Hugo keeps his distance from the adults, until the day Melies catches the young thief red-handed. Kingsley plays the old man as a genuine misanthrope, embittered by years of neglect and haunted by secrets he keeps bottled up.
Nearly all the adult characters come across as forbidding authority figures to Hugo, further accentuating the young orphan’s isolation in the world. Hugo’s only ally is a girl named Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who holds the key to his broken automaton. An avid reader, Isabelle takes pride in her multi-syllable vocabulary, introducing Hugo to the station’s intimidating book lender (Christopher Lee). In return, Hugo drags Isabelle to the movies, specifically “Safety Last,” in which silent comedian Harold Lloyd hangs from the hands of a giant clock — an image soon to be repeated in Hugo s own life.
“Hugo” overflows with allusions, both cinematic and literary, reflecting the combined passions of Scorsese and writer John Logan, whose screenplay feels as alive with love for words as Scorsese is passionate about pictures. Invigorated by the use of 3D, the helmer tips his hat to the masters of silent and 1930s French cinema, innovating all the while. At one point, he re-creates the apocryphal early screening of the Lumiere brothers’ “L’Arrivee d’un train en gare de La Ciotat,” in which audiences are so startled to see a train approaching onscreen that they leap out of its path. Scorsese builds on this image, featuring dreams within dreams as a sleeping Hugo imagines an actual train crashing through his station, quoting everything from the wreck in Abel Gance’s “La Roue” to the photo of an actual 1895 rail catastrophe at Montparnasse in the process.
Far from indulgences, these respectful nods echo the film s central theme, which concerns the plight of all those who never knew the attention filmmakers experience today. Although many will connect “Hugo’s” message with Scorsese’s film preservation work, it more closely matches his role in creating a late-career rediscovery for director Michael Powell, whom he helped to rescue from obscurity. Here, his young protagonist acts on behalf of all the medium’s artists manques.
Though Melies enjoyed great success innovating many of cinema’s first special effects (look for side-by-side cameras in one of Scorsese’s giddy restagings of these early productions, indicating that Melies was also among the first helmers to work in stereo), he was eventually bankrupted by film piracy and bad luck. His story is among the great tragedies of film history, reaching its lowest point in 1923, when Melies burned all his own negatives. “Hugo” supplies an alternative more in keeping with Scorsese s film-preservation message, as well as a resolution possible only now, in 2011, with the restoration of the only surviving hand-tinted color print of Melies’ masterpiece, 1902’s “A Trip to the Moon.” Astonishingly, Schoonmaker manages to condense this gem to just 100 seconds within the great tapestry of Scorsese s rhapsody to an unforgettable art form.