This is normally where I’d say it’s not as heady as it sounds, but HUGO is stuffed proper with a flock of big ideas, dressed in sweeping emotions to complement. It’s Scorsese’s love for parsing cinema’s visual dialect, while still maximizing its raw potential to delight, devastate and astound, that make these potentially bulky artistic notions feel light on their feet. The film starts off deceptively simple – the orphaned Hugo, played by Asa Butterfield (THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS) lives alone in the walls of a Paris train station, regularly winding the platforms' clocks, purloining pastries and nicking machine parts off an aging toymaker (Sir Ben Kingsley) in an attempt to rebuild a complex clockwork automaton, an object his late father rescued from a rusting museum collection. Hugo’s obsession with the machine leads him to a larger mystery surrounding the true identity of the irascible toymaker, an enigma he unravels with the help of Isabelle (KICK-ASS’ Chlöe Grace Moretz), the toymaker’s voraciously literate adopted daughter.
The film’s cast of characters is rounded out by the daily inhabitants of the train station, including a war-scarred, work-obsessed station inspector (Sacha Baron Coen), his spritely flower-hocking love interest, Lisette (Emily Mortimer), and Monsieur Labisse, a kindly old book dealer (the inimitable Christopher Lee). At first blush, the tragicomic, lovelorn antics (not to mention the French music-backed misanthropic whimsy) of the supporting characters, who each inhabit their own intermittent storyline viewed by Hugo in stops and starts, can’t help but recall Jeunet’s opus AMÉLIE. Of course, Scorsese is reaching much farther back. If one doesn’t initially notice that many of these humorous, ancillary vignettes are largely dialogue free and prone to joyously broad moments of deft physical comedy, Scorsese’s hand is tipped when Hugo and Isabelle sneak into a movie theater - its lobby adorned in one sheets of Keaton and Chaplin - to watch Harold Lloyd dangle from a clock tower (check out HUGO’s poster art) in the 1923 film SAFETY LAST.
But Marty’s just gettin’ started.
The true sense of cinematic wonder begins with the revelation of the toymaker’s identity (“revelation” may be a strong word for something that’s printed on the promotional cast listing): cinematic visionary George Méliès. If you don’t know the name, don’t worry – the back half of HUGO serves as a biopic wrapped in a film history lesson, including the abrupt introduction of a nebbish film scholar (A SERIOUS MAN’s Michael Stuhlbarg) and excerpts of genuine Méliès footage. It’s an odd direction to take an otherwise beautifully filmed if bog-standard family flick, but Scorsese does it with such earnest intentions and unjaded passion that it’s impossible not to get caught up. Méliès story is one of unfettered creative promise, its jubilant execution and the tragic arrival of the Great War, which finds both the films and filmmaker lost to the bloodied stoicism of history, the images forgotten, the celluloid burned and their creator lost amid a new generation whose cultural memory begins with the armistice. Of course, there’s still hope for Méliès, in the form of a robot-toting orphan.
A cynic might argue that, given the generic family movie marketing, there’s a certain degree of bait and switch to HUGO, but, hey, imply a burger then deliver a strip steak and I’m not gonna complain. If the emotionally charged history lesson is unexpected, it certainly isn’t unwelcome, and there’s something irresistible about the sly, winking audacity Scorsese exhibits in using the most garish and gimmicky of modern filmmaking tactics – CG-laden 3D – to tell a story about the nascency of cinema, even going as far as to include some of its glorious stumbling first steps amid the blockbusting sheen of modern cinematography. Even better, though, is that it never feels didactic; It never feels like a thumb-biting, brow-beating bequest for culture to revert, but rather a large-hearted plea for us, lovers of film, to remember. At its most brilliant moments, though, HUGO reminds us that our favorite books and films, no matter how base or transcendent, were all conjured from the prosaic dance of human experience - a station inspector’s life, a toymaker’s dreams; it reminds us that all people are artists, even if only in slumber. (3 out of 4 stars)