Who would have thought there would come a time when Martin Scorcese would be producing the year’s best kids’ movie? But it has happened. Baby boomer Hollywood went French in 2011, with Spielberg's 'War Horse', Woody Allen's 'Midnight in Paris' and now, to blow them all away by a sizeable margin, comes this unlikely, triumphantly twinkle-eyed, immaculate ensemble classic set in a Paris train station.
In my opinion this is in fact Scorcese’s best since his last full-calibre mafia masterpiece 'Goodfellas', so for 22 years.
It's not a perfect movie by any means, in fact it's a bit of a mess, suffering somewhat from an attempt to shoehorn two different stories, one of them including a quasi-documentary covering much of early cinema history, into one movie. But even if it doesn’t quite add up to a fully satisfactory whole, the parts are pretty awesome!! Awkwardly structured and kind of ungainly it may be but the sheer QUALITY of everything on display here puts most other recent cinematic efforts to shame. This is a director who SERIOUSLY knows what he's doing.
Hugo is a bittersweet urban fairytale about the search for closure for both a young orphan and an old, embittered, disappointed artist, and how they come to meet and ultimately help one another. It is bathed in an incredibly gorgeous midnight blue and orange palette all the way through, and utilizes exactly the right amount of well-placed digital to recreate perfectly and charmingly the Paris of the 1930s and especially the colourful and varied inhabitants of Montparnasse station where the titular Hugo lives, ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’-style, in secret.
Hugo keeps the clocks in the station running, ever since his Uncle, who taught him the ropes, died of alcoholism. He remembers the days when he and his father (Jude Law), an amateur clock-maker would work together restoring various bits of machinery. The most spectacular and special by far being a mechanical ‘automaton’ figure that, when fixed, will write a message. But his Dad also died before they fixed it together, and Hugo vows that one day he will fix it himself. But there is a piece missing, a heart-shaped key.
Well you can probably guess the rest. We are well and truly in the magical land of ‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘Peter Pan’, ‘A Little Princess’ and all those other children’s fantasy books from the early 20th Century. This is classic stuff from author Brian Selznick and it is executed deliciously, with just enough 'Phantom of the Opera'-style gothic darkness to keep us on our toes as the vulnerable, parentless Hugo negotiates the city trying to keep one step ahead of the dark forces of authority that seek to upset his plans.
There is impeccable 3D and to die for, luminous, precision cinematography by the amazing Robert Richardson. Each new sequence boasts glorious new moonlit vignettes and vistas of the charmingly painted Parisian setting.
Much of Hugo’s daily routine is involved with intricately constructed subplots featuring the larger than life coterie of characters that inhabit the Montparnasse station, played by a gold-standard smorgasbord of Brit comedy genius; Richard Griffiths, Alison Steadman, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer. Into this routine comes a new friend, a girl a bit older than him, and they soon become co-conspirators in their various adventures.
This great story, virtually flawless so far, is somewhat interrupted by parts of the second story. It’s a small and kind of petty criticism, but there is slightly too much dry narrative history read to the audience as the pair find out about the beginnings of cinema, too much of a non-fiction doco invasion. In particular one scene where they are literally reading a book about it to the audience. It’s a little too long, Scorcese’s famous passion for this medium becoming too present and noticeable as a character in its own right, in this fictional story. For a short time Hugo and Isabelle cease being the protagonists, and the story itself is suspended as we watch a factual presentation.
But that’s a pretty small gripe. And Scorcese’s obvious agenda to promote a half-forgotten innovator from the dawn of motion pictures is perhaps a cause worth interrupting the flow of the narrative for.
Of course the two stories converge, and enter the gift to our screens that is Ben Kingsley. The final reel of this movie is an incredible, kaleidoscopic and joyful trip down memory lane. A tour de force of directing that ends with a magnificent moving steadicam shot through a party introducing us to the partygoers.
After a decade of somewhat half-hearted and phoned-in attempts apparently to appease the commercial mainstream after the financial flop that was ‘Gangs of New York’ (I loved it!), Martin Scorcese seems to have got back to making Martin Scorcese movies, that truly inspire him and have passion. This is a great movie and an awesome return to form. Roll on ‘Sinatra’.
‘Hugo’ is a beautiful and intricate gold watch made from only the finest components, by a master craftsman.