Martin Scorsese's first foray in to new territory - a 3D family adventure film - is nothing short of a cinematic wonder and further proof that Scorsese is a master of cinema working at the top of his game. Surprisingly, the film also serves as something of a call to arms for film history and film preservation; a fact that is all but excluded from the advertising material.
The opening few minutes of the film contain no dialogue, Scorsese telling us what we need to know through the visual language of film: a wide cityscape shot of Paris, the life of the city briefly becoming a cog in a larger machine, before sweeping through into and around the train station that plays home to the film and then (still on the same, long, single take here) close in on the peering eyes hidden behind one of the clock faces: Hugo.
Hugo is an orphan boy living in the walls of the train station, running from clock to clock and ensuring they all run on time. His father (Jude Law) was a watchmaker who worked a second job in a museum. It was in the museum he found the small mechanical man he and Hugo have been working to fix and it is also in the museum where he dies. This leaves young Hugo, and the automaton, in the care of his drunken Uncle (Ray Winstone), the man who cares for the clocks at the station.
The train station is patrolled with relentless and vicious determination by the prat-falling Sacha Baron Cohens Station Inspector; he and his Doberman hunt the station for thieving orphans, to pack away to the orphanage in cages. Hugo has to dodge him while stealing gears, cogs and more from the old toymaker's store. The toymaker catches him though, and is revealed to be all but forgotten cinematic pioneer Georges Melies.
It is around this point that the film becomes less about Hugo and his quest to complete his and his father's automaton and more about the lost work of Melies. The two are connected - it is soon revealed that Melies is the man who created the wondrous automaton and Hugo comes across Melies' god-daughter Isabelle, who carries the key to the automaton around her neck. It's a shift of focus I wasn't expecting but was wrapped up in nonetheless.
There are no villains in this film; though Hugo comes up against Melies and, of course, the Station Inspector these people are less villains and more broken people. Baron Cohen is especially effective as the orphan persecuting Station Inspector with a shy affection for the pretty flower girl (Emily Mortimer). He was an orphan himself and badly injured his leg in the Great War - leading to bouts of physical comedy as he swings about the station and moments of quiet desperation as he attempts to approach the flower girl.
Grace Moretz as the bookish but adventure seeking Isabelle is a fizzing joy of a character, easily outshining Asa Butterfield's Hugo. She loses herself in the imaginary worlds of the adventure books she finds in Monsieur Labisse's (Christopher Lee) book-store; always wanting to have an adventure of her own but never taking those steps until Hugo brings her along. Sir Ben Kingsley as Melies himself is a commanding, sorrowful and broken performance.
I remember the first time I watched Melies' Le voyage dans la lune in film class. I was absolutely blown away. Floored. Here was a short film, from the dawn of cinema with no sound and no colour, that was a technological marvel and a wondrous film. It was a fantastical adventure with effects that left me gobsmacked - moreso than any number of computer effects in recent years. And one of the joys of Hugo is the opportunity to, within the film, witness Melies' films as they were meant to be: on the big screen. They have even been, interestingly, post-converted to 3D. It is a choice I am sure Melies, the magician and pioneer would have approved of.
The 3D in Hugo is easily the best use of the effect/gimmick that I've seen. Scorsese knows exactly what to do with it, exactly how to use the effect to help tell his story. It is truly immersive and a tool wielded by a master movie-maker. But for all of it's technological gimmickery, it is a film firmly focussed on the past; on the ongoing need for the preservation of our film history. In Hugo, Melies is all but forgotten; a magician tired of his tricks and a man with no more stomach for the fantastic after the horrible reality of War. The majority of his films (and, indeed, many of the world's earliest films) are thought lost - destroyed, reconstituted, left to moulder and rot. Even the surviving film are films that may never again be experienced on the big screen, that may never hold the attention of an entire audience. As much as I love my Buster Keaton DVDs, nothing beats seeing The General and Steamboat Bill Jr. with an audience (and live accompaniment).
Hugo, despite some (very) minor flaws, was the first film this year to truly, utterly hold me. I was rapt from to start to finish, caught up in the adventure, the emotion and the sheer joy of cinema that exudes from every frame. Scorsese has crafted something beyond a "family adventure film", though it certainly works as that. It's a love-letter, a call-to-arms, an impassioned plea, a ride, an adventure, an entertaining history lesson. I loved Hugo.