A Clockwork Fantasy
by Glenn Lovell
What’s the master of mean streets dramas doing traipsing ever so gaily through Tim Burton-Harry Potter territory? Not to worry, Martin Scorsese fans. Your hero hasn’t completely forsaken you or his muse. “Hugo,” Scorsese’s first PG-rated family adventure, comes with a dual agenda: It’s not only a phantasmagorical fusion of “Oliver Twist” and “Edward Scissorhands,” it’s also a heartfelt tour of our silent film heritage, from the Lumiere brothers’ actualités to Harold Lloyd’s dizzying slapstick in “Safety Last.”
Taking their cue from Brian Selznick, author of the popular source novel, Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan focus their attention on French director Georges Méliès, best known for the 1902 silent “A Trip to the Moon.” Méliès, an early master of cinematic legerdemain, paved the way for the modern film fantasists, from Ray Harryhausen to Terry Gilliam to the James Cameron of “Avatar.” Méliès mix of music-hall magic and in-camera tricks, Scorsese reminds us, was, and remains, the stuff that dreams are made of.
What?! And you thought you were in for a standard children’s fable?
Well, yes, the first two-thirds of “Hugo” ‒ set in Paris’ Gare Montparnasse station in the 1930s ‒ possesses a robust Hogwartsian charm. But be forewarned: If you take the young ones, expect more than a few yawns and blank stares. Though being pitched by Paramount as family fare, it’s not really meant for elementary school children. The proper age, I would guess, is around 12.
The orphaned boy of the title, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), is about that age. And like his late clockmaker father (played in flashbacks by Jude Law), he’s a whiz with gears and main springs ‒ anything mechanical. Following the death of his father, he’s taken in by a rummy uncle (Ray Winstone) and forced to live in the walls of the station, oiling and winding the clocks. In his spare time, the boy repairs an ornate, three-foot automaton. All he needs to bring the robot to life is a heart-shaped key.
“Hugo” — available flat or in eye-popping 3-D — opens like a kidlet-friendly “Goodfellas,” with the whoosh and swirl of a Steadicam that glides over a storybook Gay Paree, through the station and into the clock-tower walls. Here, amid the comings and goings of passengers, we’re introduced to the station habitués: Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), the dour proprietor of a toy store; Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), his smart, adventurous goddaughter; the comic-sadistic Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who, despite a brace on his left leg, lives to hunt down little boys and pack them off to the orphanage; Lisette (Emily Mortimer), the flower girl and object of the Station Inspector’s pathetic attempts at courtship; Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), the kindly bookstore owner; and Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths), whose every advance toward Madame Emilie (Frances de la Tour) is stifled by her jealous dog.
The main relationship is between Hugo and his new friend, Isabelle, who may hold the answer to the mystery of the mechanical man, actually a magic-show curio invented by Méliès before he turned to film. Most of the slapstick is compliments of the Station Inspector, abetted by a ferocious Doberman. His every attempt to corner Hugo ends in disaster, some of it funny, much of it painful. In other hands, this character would have been an Inspector Clouseau buffoon. Performance artist Baron Cohen (“Borat”) defies expectations by playing him as a sad, wreck of a man who hunts children out of spite over his own lost childhood. The scene in which the Inspector nervously approaches the flower girl and the world seems to freeze as his metal brace seizes up is one of many examples of pure movie magic. (A reference to Hitchcock’s glass floor in his silent thriller “The Lodger” is another.)
We’d like to be more enthusiastic about Scorsese’s first family outing. It’s certainly a feast for the eyes, thanks to a reteaming of many of the Oscar-winning crew of “Aviator,” including cinematographer Robert Richardson, costumer Sandy Powell and production designer Dante Ferretti, whose apprenticeship with Fellini pays big dividends here. Scorsese’s period Paris ‒ a mix of models and CG ‒ is as luminescent as that found in the animated “Ratatouille.”
But just when the narrative should reach its peak, it bogs down. Filmmaker Scorsese cedes the stage ‒ and much of Act 3 ‒ to Film Professor Scorsese. Suddenly we’re in the Film Academy Library listening to a lecture on the origins of film and being told something we already know: “Time hasn’t been kind to old movies.” They must be protected at all cost. Next, Méliès is facing the camera, explaining how World War I shuttered his “enchanted castle,” his shimmering glass studio, and caused him to lose his passion, his purpose in life. It’s all so artful and well-meant, but it feels pedantic and, like Méliès’ magic-show robot, proves a wondrous contraption motorized by a spring-driven heart.
HUGO ✮✮✮ With Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jude Law. Directed by Martin Scorsese; scripted by John Logan from the novel by Brian Selznick. 127 min. PG (for intense chase scenes)