Martin Scorsese made his considerable and well-deserved reputation on the strength of films about gangsters, murderers, thugs, and crooked cops. He is a master of showing the violent life on the mean streets of various U.S. cities. So it comes as a surprise to see his latest, “Hugo,” tell a story about a young orphan boy who lives in a Parisian railroad station, a shy lad whose job is to keep the station’s clocks running. Though it’s rated “PG” (for some action/peril and smoking!), this one doesn’t fit into the “family movie” category easily. Scorsese’s obsession with film history and preservation will appeal to cinematic geeks like yours truly, but it’s hard to see subteens or their older siblings sitting still for the lectures that clog up the action. Hey, there’s even a professor to hold the interest down!
That said, “Hugo” is a brilliant work of and about film-making, that process by which machines make dreams come (apparently) true. Symbolized by the automaton which Hugo (Asa Butterfield) has been left by his father (Jude Law), the movie focuses on fixing the ravages of time and neglect—both personal and professional. Hugo’s search for a heart-shaped key to get the machine working brings him to young Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), another orphan and a ward of Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley) and his wife, Jeanne (Helen McCrory). Film buffs will immediately recognize the name of Melies, a magician who became one of the earliest movie pioneers, best-known for the first “special effect,” the use of stop-action cinematography to make people appear and disappear.
Like many early (and contemporary) films, “Hugo” is full of chases, and these will likely engage the kids and their parents. His pursuers, the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his Doberman, are especially bent on capturing orphans, though the nimble little urchins are tough for the wounded inspector to catch. A little toy repair shop run by the bitter Melies, who has fallen from his earlier fame, provides the mechanically-gifted Hugo something of a refuge. And the station’s flower girl, Lisette (Emily Mortimer), also distracts the inspector from his obsession with apprehending the little thief.
You may catch echoes of both “Les Miz” and Peter Sellers, among the many cinematic allusions Scorcese provides. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd all have brief cameos, and even film buff James Joyce turns up for an instant. A student of the medium, Scorsese employs 3-D technology as it ought to be: to reinforce the story and the characters. For example, as the inspector and his dog lean “out” of the screen over Hugo, we better understand the boy’s terror. Cinematographer Robert Richardson obviously deserves major credit here, as do Scorcese’s longtime collaborators film editor Thelma Schoonover and production designer Dante Ferretti for the film’s rich visual appeal.
“Hugo” may not do well at the box office: it has somewhat limited popular appeal, and there are some long, talkie stretches where Scorsese’s own interests overwhelm the story proper. But for film fans this is a no-brainer, don’t-misser. And, yeah, shell out the extra coupla bucks for the 3-D glasses.