Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It’s a sentiment that the legendary Martin Scorsese seems to have taken to heart in making his latest film, Hugo, a new-fangled valentine to the early days of cinema and a charming fable in its own right.
The titular 12-year-old (Asa Butterfield) keeps the clocks running in a Parisian train station circa 1931, although no one knows that -- his mother is long gone, his ever-tinkering father (Jude Law) is recently deceased, and his drunken lout of an uncle (Ray Winstone) has seemingly vanished. In between winding cranks and repairing clocks, the fledgling voyeur pilfers what he needs from nearby carts and shops and evades capture at the hands of a war-wounded, romantically challenged, nameless station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) eager to ship this orphan off like all the rest.
Hugo’s sole inheritance from his father is an automaton, rescued from a museum and unable to operate without a heart-shaped key ... just the kind of key that local bookworm Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) happens to keep around her neck. What he hopes to be a message from Dad turns out to have much more to do with Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley, reuniting with Scorsese after Shutter Island), Isabelle’s godfather and owner of the station’s toy shop from which Hugo pinches gears and parts. But to reveal much more about the mystery in store would be irresponsible of me.
Suffice it to say that movies, machinery, and magic intertwine throughout as John Logan (Scorsese’s The Aviator) proceeds to adapt Brian Selznick’s novel and the central quest for purpose shifts from, or rather is split between, young Hugo and old Georges. They each serve as analogues for Scorsese himself, given their respective interest in creating and preserving illusion and his off-screen contributions to the field of film preservation. As Hugo stares out over the hustle and bustle of Paris, he wonders if he has a purpose -- after all, no machine comes with a piece that isn’t required. Georges, on the other hand, had a purpose, only to lose it to a war that took from many their sense of both family and fantasy. Butterfield’s baby blues do much of the heavy lifting for him, and save for the occasionally stilted line reading, he’s a rightfully scrappy lead worthy of Dickens, with Moretz serving as a more than suitable cohort, giddily introducing him, with her proudly developed vocabulary, to the wonders of books and gawking in awe as he returns the favor by taking her to her first movie.
Baron Cohen wrings more laughs out of nasally asides with fellow authority figures than recurring feats of slapstick, although Scorsese does a nice job of setting up and refusing to pay off a giant-cake gag as his Inspector gives chase to Hugo, and a love interest in the form of a florist played by Emily Mortimer (also Shutter Island) keeps him from being too outright villainous and therefore worthy of some grand comeuppance that never arrives. The real heart of the piece stems from Kingsley’s performance, shading his one-time showman with equal parts enthusiasm for his career, resignation over its decline, and resentment toward those who dare remind him of his former glory. It’s better work than the Sir has done in years (since roughly 2008, when he co-starred with Mortimer in Transsiberian), and it defines the film’s more adventurous, less adventure-driven second half.
Naturally, the technique at hand is nothing short of astounding. Robert Richardson shoots the world in and around the station in a golden hue that feels magical rather than sickly, and this particularly immersive use of 3-D only further complements the storybook feel of it all. (The same could and should be said for Howard Shore’s fittingly grand score, and Dante Ferretti’s lush production design, and Sandy Powell’s costume design, and...) The subject matter aside, Scorsese couldn’t be happier to be steeped in the world of yesteryear, and he takes great strides to make sure that everything feels period-appropriate and yet as timeless as it would seem in the eyes of a child. From a matured point of view, the themes encompass fundamental belonging and artistic expression without a heavy touch or an ounce of cynicism, cherishing to an equal extent the value that people put in moving pictures and each other.
There is a pair of questionably necessary dream sequences around the film’s mid-point, one of which serves as a reproduction of an infamous 1895 train crash that Hugo wouldn’t have witnessed for himself, but about which he surely would have heard. Thanks to 3-D technology, Scorsese gets to thrust a train toward the audience in hopes that they’ll react just as early audiences did to the Lumiere brothers’ 2-D footage of the same. Whether that in fact works as intended on a savvier generation is up for debate, but when clips of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton can still elicit gasps and giggles from a modern audience as they did at our screening, that feels like an even greater trick to be pulled by a man who can master movies, machinery, and magic all in one fell swoop.