Reviewed by Galen Strickland
It's hard deciding how to start this review since there are so many elements that I loved, most all of them equal in my mind. I guess I should start by telling you it is not an SF film, not even fantasy, though it comes close to that on occasion. It does have more imagination and sense-of-wonder than hundreds of other SF films I could name, and for that reason alone its inclusion on this site is very appropriate. When I first heard about it I was interested, but when I found out it was directed by Martin Scorcese it gave me pause. Granted, Scorcese is an excellent filmmaker, it's just that with a few exceptions the subjects of his films don't appeal to me that much. This one is such a departure from his usual fare, but the artist in him was able to master the elements needed to bring this story to glorious life.
One thing I have always admired about Scorcese's work is his control of the camera. Hugo is full of his trademark flowing camera movement, his nearly endless tracking shots through elaborate sets (although quite a few in this film are CGI generated). I have only seen three of the films nominated for the Academy Awards this year, but I will be disappointed if Hugo does not win the majority of the eleven categories for which it has been recognized. The art design, the sets and costumes, the cinematography and visual effects, are all superb, and I am willing to state now that it is the best film I have seen in several years, even better than The Tree of Life, which I also love. The eleven nominations Hugo did receive were the most for any film this year, and yet there should have been at least one more to be entirely fair.
No matter how well photographed, no matter how dazzling the scenery or the effects, a film cannot engage you if it is not populated by talented actors inhabiting interesting characters. Hugo has this in spades, and yet not one of the actors received a nomination. While there are several others I will mention later that deserved the recognition, it is almost criminal that Ben Kingsley was not so honored. I'm not sure why I care about that, since it has been many years since I realized that the Academy rarely honors the most worthy films and performers, and for Hugo to be nominated for the majority of its good points should be enough.
You may already know a bit about the story, especially the character that Kingsley plays, but I will refrain from talking too much about the plot since the overall theme is what is important here. At one point the title character says that he once thought of the entire world as a machine, and since all machines have just the number of parts they need to perform their job, no excess parts, then he and everyone else must have a function to make the world work. Unfortunately, not all of us are able to figure out what that function is, but by the end Hugo Cabret at least knows what he wants his function to be.
Asa Butterfield plays Hugo with a skill that belies his age and experience. He's not yet 15, and while he has been acting since he was 8, this is the first thing I've seen him in. I'm sure it helped that he had the experienced Scorcese to work with, but his talent seems innate and solid. It will be interesting to see him next year as Ender Wiggin in the long gestating adapation of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. Chloë Grace Moretz is only a couple of months older but has been acting several years longer, with nearly four times the credits as Butterfield. Her Isabelle is a delight, precocious and adventurous, a lover of books and wordplay. As is the case with the maturation process of boys and girls, Isabelle appears at least a couple of years older than Hugo, but that doesn't stop them from beginning what is likely to be a long friendship, if not a romance. But that would be much later in the lives of these two characters, in this film they are two orphans. He has no one, living alone in the walls and clock towers of the Montparnasse train station in Paris. She was lucky that her "Papa Georges" (her godfather, not her real grandfather) took her in after the deaths of her parents. She helps her Papa in his toy store in the station, and it is through that connection she meets Hugo.
Other performances worth noting: Helen McCrory as Mama Jeanne, Isabelle's godmother and Georges' faithful and loving wife. Both Kingsley's and her work is subtle but very emotional and passionate. There is also the venerable Christopher Lee as a bookseller fond of Isabelle and later of Hugo. His role is small but significant in the way he helps them in their journey of discovery. I almost didn't recognize Sacha Baron Cohen, and while his character of the Station Inspector is mostly one of comic relief, his work here is much more subtle than I would expect from him. This is set in France in the mid-1920s, and he plays a former soldier injured in World War I. While it might make sense that Scorcese would want his actors to refrain from an exagerrated French accent, I'm not sure why Cohen sounds British here, in fact I kept visualizing Peter Cook delivering his lines. Still, his performance solidifies his talent at creating unique and varied characters. Both Jude Law and Michael Stuhlbarg also have small but significant roles. Law is Hugo's deceased father, seen in just a couple of flashbacks, and Stuhlbarg is a renowned film scholar with a passionate interest in Isabelle's godfather, whom he thought had died during the war.
There are so many other things I would like to say about this film, but I don't want to spoil any of the story or belabor the point of how good I think it is. Suffice it to say, all of the actors, along with all the technicians who contributed to the production, are all cogs in the machine that makes Hugo such a great film. But the most important part of that machine is Scorcese himself, with his passion for film and its ability to entertain, delight and inspire its audience. In this sense he is every bit the magician as Georges Méliès, the pioneering French filmmaker whom Ben Kingsley brings to life in one of the best performances of his career. Méliès developed some of the first special effects techniques ever used for film, so it is appropriate that the latest (and much improved) 3D technology has been used to bring his story back to the screen. If nothing else, Hugo should make everyone aware of the importance of film as an art form, and the necessity of preserving all that we can for future generations.
Whether you are lucky to see this in a theater, in either a regular or 3D presentation, or have to wait for the video release, you must see it! I cannot recommend Hugo enough. It is a work of genius. To paraphrase, "It's the reason we go to the movies!"
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