There are good children’s films, and there are good films about children, and this movie is definitely the latter rather than the former. It has been hailed as an instant classic, and not without reason. Of the holiday films thus far out, this one outshines all the rest by a very wide margin.
Martin Scorsese is of course known as one of the most skilled and talented directors of films of this or any other era. What he has never attempted before is a film that involves both CG and Three D, and finally we have someone who knows how to use both to good effect! Huzzah.
One suspects he was brave enough to attempt this because he was inspired by that first greater cinema experimenter extraordinaire George Melies a Frenchman who was a maker of over 500 films at and after the turn of the 20th century, whose story is told in this movie through the eyes of the child Hugo Cabret. If you will take the time to read the Wiki article on Melies, you will see just how faithful Scorsese has been in the telling of Melies’ life story, right down to details like his going bankrupt and ending up running a toy shop in the Montparnasse train station in Paris.
I suspect Scorsese tells this tale because he himself is involved in the film preservation society, knows the history of film, and may well have had a hand in preserving some of Melies’ original masterpieces. But enough on background, lets move to the front of the stage.
First of all, the acting in this film is superb— with Ben Kingsley doing another star turn as Melies, Jude Law doing a cameo as Hugo’s father, and amazingly Sacha Baron Cohen doing a strong rendition of a train station policeman. Asa Butterfield as Hugo, and Chloe Moretz as Isabelle, the two child stars of the film, are superb as well. The film has the feel of the Narnia pictures in their train station scenes, and of course they depict a similar earlier 20th century era in European history.
Secondly, the adaptation of the book by John Logan and Brian Selznick is top drawer. At two hours and six minutes the film has something of a slow pace, but attention is given to detail, the cinematography is fabulous, and the characters are allowed to develop over time. Nothing is rushed, nothing is superfluous, but in an age where apparently some children can only be entertained if there is dramatic action all the time, or violence, or the like, sadly there will be some who will not be patient and allow this film to tell its beautiful, and bittersweet story.
The story is indeed about a boy who lost his parents, and as an orphan continued to do his father’s job, winding and servicing all the clocks in Montparnasse station ‘behind the scenes’. Indeed, so behind the scenes that no one knew he was doing it, they all though his often inebriated uncle was carrying on the family business.
But the story does not just focus on Hugo, it focuses on his attempt to fix an early robot or automaton which his father left him. This one, when properly wound, could actually write or draw on a piece of paper. Alas, however, there is a missing key (see the posters), and for some reason the adopted ward of George Melies, Isabelle has it.
It is a pleasure to watch a film that is rich, profound, has purpose and depth, doesn’t play for cheap effects, has no gratuitous sex or violence or vulgar language, and manages quite well without those staples of modern films. One wonders how Scorsese who has often depicted life’s cruder side in his films was able to have such a gentle and charming touch in this film. It shows his own depth and scope as a person.
At its heart, this movie explores a theme— ‘to everything there is a purpose, a raison d’etre’, and that includes all human beings. Hugo and Isabelle both seek the purpose of why they are alive, and what they should be doing with their lives. Hugo desperately hopes that the automaton might reveal a clue left by his father, whom he suspects programmed to robot to leave him a message. As it turns out, it is not an automaton, but a relationship that unlocks the key to his life, to his heart, to his soul.
I will not spoil the story and its ending for you, but I will say this— of all the films either for or about children showing or to be shown during this holiday season, you will have to look hard to find a more beautiful and enriching film than this one. Don’t get happy feet and wander off to a penguin redux, or a Muppet redux (though that one is pretty good), or an Arthur Christmas film, or Puss and Boots, or, or, or….. Save your nickels for this film. I promise it is worth it, and indeed even the 3D is worth it this time.