I am no huge fan of Martin Scorsese, but I was curious to see what he might do with a kids' movie, and very curious to see what a very smart cinema craftsman might do with 3-D. Most 3-D movies until now have been kids' animated things, cheesy thrill rides or cheapo horror films, so I was fascinated to see what someone with a deep knowledge of how to compose a frame (do not even start with me about James Cameron) would do with this new tool. It turned out to be much better than expected, and not at all a kids' movie, but a sentimental valentine to early cinema likely only to be embraced by adults, which makes it a little sad it's being marketed as a children's film, and the people at the box office said it's not proving to be a large draw at all. The Friday night audience I saw it with was only a quarter full, and in kids in attendance (save one notable exception that we'll discuss) were palpably bored. The adults, however, were tear-stained emotional basket cases.
We open with an image of gears and clockwork that magically transforms into Paris. Then we have a crazy swooping shot into the massive train station, ending at the huge clock that hangs from the center, with our hero Hugo peering out. He lives within the walls of the station, winding the clocks and stealing little knicknacks and croissants in order to get by. He looks around and sees several of the station's daily inhabitants, like the rotund man with a crush on the cafe owner, whose dog can't stand him. Or the flower shop owner who is the target of a crush by the station policeman, who has a mechanical leg and an obsession with finding hooligans like Hugo and shipping them off to the orphanage. If you're thinking that these people will keep coming back and we'll watch as their stories develop, well, you get today's gold star.
A flashback shows us Hugo's idealized boyhood with his father, played by Jude Law, who finds an automaton, a small mechanized man that will write something when repaired, and they both work on fixing him. Hugo's father is abruptly killed in a fire, and Hugo taken into the train station by his drunken uncle, who promptly disappears, leaving Hugo to his solitary existence. He pilfers little gears and suchlike in his quest to repair the automaton, which he thinks will write out a message from his dead father. This leads him to the toy shop of mean old man Ben Kingsley as Georges, where he eventually gets a job as an assistant. He also befriends Georges' adoptive granddaughter, played by Chloe Grace Moretz of Kick-Ass. They sneak out one day and go to the movies, where they see Harold Lloyd's Safety Last, the one where he hangs from the hands of a clock. If you've surmised that we'll have a reprise of this moment... well, no gold star for that one, since it's on the poster. But it's your clue that a lot of the stuff you'll be seeing in the snippets of early cinema shown here will become integral parts of the movie proper.
Eventually the automaton produces a clue that leads them to figure out that mean grandpa Georges is none other than Georges Melies, pioneer of early cinema whose best-known image, the man in the moon getting a rocket right in the eye, who has fallen into obscurity and despair. From then you can see where this movie is going, but it's one of those that hits familiar marks which only serve to make it wonderful, because you can see where everything is headed, and it goes there in rich and satisfying ways. The overt sentimentality of the whole thing, as well as the goal of restoring a worthy man to his rightful glory, basically had tears streaming down my face for the whole second hour, which was also the fate of the friend next to me, and another friend who saw it separately. I actually was having trouble breathing for the entire second hour because I was so choked up.
Note that all the aforementioned people are adults. The kids in the same row as me were crawling around in discomfort, before they started amusing themselves through the violent kicking of seats. During the first hour I was like: "How wonderful--and it's a KIDS' movie!" Then a few minutes later I was like "Okay, it's a movie for extremely intelligent children." A few minutes later I was convinced "No child will sit through this!" Although perhaps Scorsese actually thinks this is a kids' movie, in which case that's extremely charming. No, this is strictly for adults, and by the time you get to the third major lecture on early cinema, you'll know it, too. And now--the lectures!
We have a run-down on the earliest films that merely showed motion. Then the Lumiere brothers made it somewhat of a sideshow attraction, and we have the film of a train rushing at the screen, and the audience screaming and getting out of the way, not understanding that it is just an image on a screen. Keep that one in mind, we'll be coming back to it. Melies, we are told, was the first to realize that movies could have fantastic material, and used his own money and personal pluck to make a bunch of films in his own studio. But after WWI he lost all his money, all his films save one were lost, and he fell into obscurity. When we start to get to the "film preservation" part of the film, those familiar with Scorsese's tireless work in the area may have a moment of "Oh, here we go..."
And now the several metaphors. We have numerous images of gears and clockwork, which are very much like the numerous parts of a movie camera or projector, and also become a metaphor for people, who are like machines that serve a purpose. But what if they are broken, and can't fulfill their purpose? Well then perhaps they can be fixed. Like the automaton, and Melies himself.
But Scorsese's project isn't just to lionize Melies, it is also to bring to new life the thrill and magic of the early cinema he's talking about. At a certain point Hugo has a dream in which he is in the path of an onrushing train, which jumps the tracks and plows through the station, ending with a clever, funny visual joke I wouldn't dare spoil for you. But the oncoming-train peril is repeated in reality, using several of the same shots, later in the film, with it looking like Hugo is about to meet his doom. Somehow, because we had seen it before, this sequence was much more exciting and energizing than it would have been if we had just seen it once, to the point where the one kid in the audience who was paying attention started FREAKING OUT. He started shouting "I'll save you!" to Hugo on screen, and then just continued screaming until Hugo was saved. Later you put together that in creating this energy in the modern audience, Scorsese is recreating the same experience of the early cinema audience when they saw on the onrushing train, and you know that you're right when you realize that we see both sequences twice. And once you realize that, you have to face that this movie is total genius.
As I said, by that time the movie completely had me in its spell and it continued to flush out brilliantly until the end. Even the things you see coming a mile away--I was actually wishing we didn't have to sit through Hugo's inevitable capture by the station guard--go down much more smoothly in reality. You just have to go with all the sentimentality and live it up. Remarkably, the wish to lionize this master of early cinema and restore a bitter old man to the glory he deserves proves to be a massively potent tear-jerker. Just go, and let yourself get into it. Leave the kids at home. Oh and by the way, you're an idiot if you don't see this on the big screen. Even on a 3-D television, it wouldn't be the same. Go now.
Yes, it's a sweet and sentimental present for the eyes and mind.