Martin Scorsese’s new movie, Hugo, is based on the illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Is it possible that Selznick’s award-winning book is even half as marvelous as the movie Scorsese and writer John Logan have made from it? If so, I can hardly wait to read it.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan living secretly in the hidden recesses of a vast Paris train station sometime in the 1930s. He’s not entirely a squatter. He lives with his drunken Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), the live-in tender of the station’s many clocks. Uncle Claude spends more time in his cups than at his job and eventually goes missing altogether, so the real work falls to Hugo, who, like his late father (Jude Law), is fascinated by the intricate workings of machines—the cogs, gears, springs and counterweights that make things tick. When not scurrying up and down ladders at his job, Hugo spends his spare moments working to revive an automaton, a mechanical man his father found in a museum. The automaton and its clanking innards are Hugo’s last link to his father.
Hugo cadges scraps of food from the various shops and cafes in the station, which catches the gimlet eye of the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who doesn’t know that Uncle Claude is gone and Hugo is now doing his job; he sees the boy only as a pesky street urchin to be rounded up and handed over to an orphanage.
Hugo shows many denizens of the station, but two in particular affect our young hero’s life: a cranky, bitter old toyseller (Ben Kingsley, in a performance of sublime dignity) and his ward Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), who is just about Hugo’s age. Isabelle introduces Hugo to the universe of books in the library of kindly Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee). But more important, the old guardian she calls “Papa Georges” turns out to be none other than Georges Méliès, the first true artist of film, the first to make movies of imagination rather than simple records of everyday events. Now, 30 years after his great success, forgotten and believed dead, he sits alone at his toy stand, mourning for the lost magic of his past.
And this is where it becomes clear why the Martin Scorsese of Mean Streets would want to make a 3-D family picture. He’s not selling out; he’s simply expressing his passion for film history and preservation in a new and wonderful way. Recreating the works of early filmmakers like Méliès and the Lumière brothers—and in 3-D!—he recreates for us the excitement those first audiences felt in the 1890s; at last we can see why they would leap up in panic at a shot of a train arriving in a station.
In flashbacks to the turn of the century, Hugo also recreates the heady thrill of working in early movies, making up rules on the fly. There are anachronisms (I doubt if directors were in the habit of shouting “Action!” as early as 1902), but they serve to connect us to that time rather than to alienate us from it. And the movie links Hugo’s fascination with clockworks to Méliès’ with the workings of a movie camera—machines that track time and machines that preserve and make it happen over and over again. Arthur C. Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and in Méliès, the stage magician turned filmmaker, Hugo illustrates the point. This new technology, taking rapid pictures on strips of celluloid, is mechanical magic, turning dreams to reality.
Everything works beautifully in Hugo. It’s probably too slow and thoughtful for small children, but as they grow older, and before they lose their sense of wonder, they’ll be receptive to the vision of Brian Selznick (a distant cousin of David O. Selznick), Martin Scorsese and John Logan, captured in glorious storybook colors by cinematographer Robert Richardson.
There’s a curious footnote to all this that not even Brian Selznick could have seen coming: Just this year, the largest manufacturers ceased production of film movie cameras. After a 130-year run, those crank-and-sprocket-and-celluloid machines have gone the way of typewriters and steam locomotives. Everything now is digital—and the technology of movies takes another giant step toward pure magic.