Hugo is about the titular character, a young orphan living inside a train station. He is maintaining the clock in the station that his father used to manage while also taking care of an automaton that his father left him. Caught in the act of stealing by an old man running a toy store in the station, his notebook containing very personal details, mostly relating to his father, was confiscated by the old man. He befriends the old man’s goddaughter Isabelle and asks that his notebook be returned to him. As it turns out, the old man is Georges Melies, the French film pioneer whose career tragically ended when World War I came. It is now left to Hugo for him to discover between the automaton and the filmmaker Melies.
A fantasy drama with a central character of a young boy is not your usual Scorsese fare. He is mostly recognized for tackling gritty stories – either the machinations of an Italian gang in Goodfellas, the victory and defeat of a boxer in Raging Bull, the bloody revenge of a man for his father in Gangs of New York, or the deception taking place in Boston crime scene in The Departed – that’s why I initially doubted this film when I first knew about it. But as the film started, I am already left in awe.
Scorsese immediately immerses the senses with a strong recognition of stark shadings. There is something surreal and dark beneath the celebratory images of a Parisian train station, underlined by the beautifully vibrant music score that is appropriately enchanting and French. The film then breathtakingly zooms in to the lead character that then engages in a dazzling run that leads to another character, Melies. In a way, the way the film hinges on magical visual makes sense, as it provides contrast in the somberness of the film. The breathtaking opening sequence is quite representative of Scorsese’s take on the film. He fills the film with images that brings a tangible milieu of fantasy but at the same time also envelopes the film in a noticeable inclination on mystery.
The film does feel like a fantasy neo-noir. Aided by superb cinematography and astonishing visual effects, the film plays with the brightness of the strong colors with the shadows that exemplify the dexterity that Scorsese has in handling the material. With his background in telling dark stories, he is able to place the right amount of obscurity to create a wonderful dance between the undeniable joy of childhood, the celebratory spirit of cinema, and the creeping sadness underneath these two.
Having an able screenplay that supply the film with a cleverly crafted narrative, the film delivers an effective ode to both childhood and cinema. The skillful rendition of the technical aspects of the film is just a mere part of it. The film is an emotional experience. There is wonder in the film that surprisingly lets the emotional core of the narrative to shine. The visuals do not overwhelm the story. Instead, the stunning imagery of the film strengthens the story.
There is also the presence of a strong cast of actors: from its lead Asa Butterfield’s honest perseverance to Chloe Grace-Moretz’ strong suggestion of awe, there is a present intelligence in the execution. Also, there are Ben Kingsley, Helen McCroy, and Michael Stuhlbarg that populate the film with characters that are not just mere additions, but all serve the purpose of providing support of the film’s core.
Scorsese’s visible mastery of the craft is visible throughout the film the same way the sound and production design are evident with the great detail and specificity in them. The film is obviously a work of someone who has years of experience, and that very experience shows in the execution of the film. The result is a film that gloriously visualizes the heart of the intertwining of the magnificence of cinema and the jubilant truth of childhood. This is a film of undeniable wonder.
For this, the film gets: