Our rating: 5 out of 5
Intelligent family films are few and far between, so it is a surprise that one would come from director Martin Scorsese, who is better known for his sprawling macabre sagas than children's stories. But Hugo is full of enough magic, heart, and imagination to inspire anyone, young or old.
Since the death of his father, twelve year old Hugo (Asa Butterfield) has lived in the train station and looked after winding the clocks. By day he keeps out of the clutches of the local inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen), who is intent on catching orphans and dispatching them off to the orphanage, and by night he works on the anamatron his father left him. The wind-up man has never worked and Hugo steals parts from a local toy shop to try and fix him. But one day, the owner of the shop, Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), catches him and absconds with Hugo's notebook full of sketches. This leads to an unlikely friendship with George's granddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), as the two are drawn into one another's worlds and discover unexpected delights along the way.
Because this is a book adaptation, the plot is richer and more complex than usual. It unravels at a slow pace but has the luxurious quality of feeling like a book, as pages turn and events transpire and we learn things about everyone along the way. What stands out the most, however, is the vignettes that unfold in the background such as a romance between two people held at bay because of her aggressive dog, and the insecurities faced by the station inspector. These add an air of delight to a plot that in the second half surprises us with unexpected revelations. It does feel a trifle slow at times but the wonder of the world Scorsese creates makes up for it. I have rarely seen a more gorgeous film, full of beautiful exterior shots of France just after the first world war. Everything from snow-covered statues to the interior clockworks is breathtaking. The cast is made up of mostly British actors, many of whom will be familiar to the audience from everything from Hammer films to the Harry Potter series. (Christopher Lee, Jude Law, and others make guest appearances.) It has a wonderful musical score, and a truly tremendous main cast. The luminous eyes of Asa Butterfield often shine with unshed tears.
The most problematic of the content includes Hugo stealing -- food, clockworks, and other things he needs in order to survive. He sneaks Isabelle into a movie theater without paying for it. Other concerns are almost nonexistent, although Hugo has a couple of frightening dreams. A conversation references an unfaithful wife and her illegitimate child. Flashbacks reference the emotional devastation and turmoil of the war, and losing parents, but it is a touching story of healing and family. One thing that rang hollow for me was that it is through recognition that a man overcomes his depression. Even though his former accomplishments are impressive, we can never find fulfillment in the things of this world. Our past is part of who we are, but it is our relationship with God that matters far more than what we do in life. Movies, even wonderful movies, are not that important, and like many films, this one chooses to make them seem far more important than they actually are.
The best stories linger with us no matter what age we are, and like a good book, Hugo is one of them.