Though I’ve had plenty of time to get used to it, I still find it very odd to think of the director Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and The Departed presiding over a movie largely targeted at children, or at least families. While I bow to no one in my admiration of Martin Scorsese, I was never necessarily convinced that he necessarily had the widest range, the sort that would keep his voice strong and clear regardless of the genre he tackled. Hugo doesn’t necessarily prove that he can go absolutely anywhere in convincing fashion, but it is a vibrant, heartfelt film that is at its very best–especially the consistently stupendous second half–clearly one of the most personal film’s of the director’s stellar career. It’s a kid’s movie about the magic of film preservation, for god’s sake. Scorsese is the arguably the only person with the requisite levels of artistry and passion to make that truly magical.
The title character is an orphaned boy living surreptitiously in a Parisian train station in the 1930s, having been brought there to help tend the clocks by a reprobate uncle after the death of his father. As played by Asa Butterfield, Hugo is a boy who has tentatively but thoroughly adapted to his life cavorting through the walls of the station, zipping through intricate tunnels and bounding around whirling gears because keeping the clocks working properly is the best way to keep his presence hidden, especially once his uncle disappears. If someone investigates a slow timepiece on the wall, they’ll find him and ship him off to the orphanage. In that battle, his chief adversary is the station inspector, played by Sacha Baron Cohen as a more benign French cousin of Daniel Day-Lewis’s Bill Cutting in Gangs of New York. Hugo also runs afoul of the glum old man who runs a toy stand in the station, an encounter that leads to discoveries centered on a tragically discarded past.
Scorsese’s directing on the bustling floor of the train station and throughout the inner workings that Hugo calls home is consistently energizing and visually stunning, especially in 3D as he immediately distinguishes himself as one of the directors using the new technological toy that realizes that he can take advantage of constructing his frame in mind rather than just throwing stuff at the camera. Some of the schtick may not totally work in the earliest sequences–there’s some especially strained business with the train inspector and Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan struggle to determine exactly at what level of buffoonery the character should be pitched–but when the time comes to explore that forgotten history, Scorsese’s work shines. It helps that Ben Kingsley provides a wonderful, gentle performance as a man slowly allowing himself to acknowledge what he’s lost and, perhaps, regain it in the process.
The film is based on Brian Selznick’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and, as the story unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear why Scorsese was drawn to the work, why he felt compelled to realize it onscreen, and even why he threw himself into the movie magic of the moment to achieve his vision. The synchronicity of the work and the filmmaker comes together in ways that aren’t exactly surprising, but are certainly inspiring. There may have been a reasonable fear that Scorsese was engaged in a silly lark–most early Oscar prognosticating didn’t include Hugo as a possible factor at all, a situation that started to change once people got a chance to see it–but, by now, it should perhaps be clear that only marginal commitment to a film isn’t really in the director’s character. Hugo is vital and challenging. Clearly, there’s no reason to ever expect anything less with Scorsese.