Fabulous set decoration highlights this movie lover’s fantasia. Hugo primarily takes place at a train station in 1930’s Paris (in 3D) with the titular boy (Asa Butterfield) surviving on his own following the death of his father. To make ends meet, he is often a pickpocket, whom once caught, is under watch of the bumbling Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). The core of the movie’s sweetness belongs to Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz, the tragic vampire in “Let Me In”), a girl with splendid vocabulary who is simply in search of an adventure. A mecha automaton waits to be fixed and to be opened by a specific heart-shaped key, and Hugo reluctantly teams up with Isabelle for help with this. Ben Kingsley, as Georges Méliés, is a lump of coal for too long a stretch in the movie. This is where I’m going to give you a hint. Méliés is a real French historical figure, a pioneer in silent cinema. Kingsley plays him as a disgruntled forgotten man who must now be reckoned with, Hugo insists.
Martin Scorsese has built his legacy on making violent pulp operas like “GoodFellas” (1990) and “The Departed” (2006). He seemed unlikely to make “Hugo” but only until you see for yourself that it’s a story in love with movies.
Scorsese, in his spare time, devotes himself to film preservation. See, for awhile I couldn’t see why he would invest his time in a fable where a child struggles to unlock the purpose of a mecha automaton (yes, it looks like a drone from “A.I” or “I, Robot”). But it must have seemed a luscious opportunity for Scorsese to broadly and fancifully dramatize the late life of Méliés, and to assemble montages of the best of silent films of the 1920’s.
We see part of Méliés’ masterpiece “A Trip to the Moon” from 1902 in brief segments. Yes, it is a trippy magician’s movie, percolated fantasy of earth men blasting into space and onto the moon, manipulated by snazzy camera tricks. Someday in your life you should see it. “Moon” is only 14 minutes long.
Hugo dashes around that gargantuan set that is the Parisian train station. He dodges the Inspector. He climbs the clocks. He slides down curvaceous slides. He reassembles the all-important mecha with his special engineering talent (for 1930-something, the mecha certainly feels futuristic for then). Isabelle talks to him about books. Hugo talks to her about movies. She has never seen one. Hugo takes Isabelle to see her first movie “Safety Last” (1923), just in time for the classic man hanging on clock sequence, and from there they join hands in uncovering the secret of finding out who Méliés truly was. The movie works as a portrait of a pure friendship coming together.
“Hugo” is fantastic-looking and magical without being truly enchanting. Perhaps it is overbloated with a first-half that feels amorphous in purpose. When the story eventually comes together, we don’t want more pursuits. We just want more investigation into Méliés and the birth of cinema. Inquisitive kids might want to know more of this, too, if there are any left…
130 Minutes. Rated PG.
FAMILY MOVIE / ENCHANTING FANTASY / WINTER TIME MOVIE
Film Cousins: “A Trip to the Moon” (1902, France); “Safety Last” (1923); “Sherlock Jr.” (1924); “Metropolis” (1927, Germany).