Hugo: Scorsese’s Personal, Oscar-Winning Film, Starring Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Child Actor Asa Butterfield

A must-see fable for movie lovers of all ages, Scrorsese’s “Hugo” is one of his most technologically determined pictures (among other distinctions, it’s the director’s first foray into 3D), but also one of his most personal, original, and deeply felt works in a long time.

“Hugo” was first shown as a work in progress and surprise screening at the 2011 New York Film Festival, in October.  Paramount, which opens the film November 23, faces a challenge in putting over a PG-rated feature, which nominally is a children’s adventure and thus aims to appeal to young viewers.  However, at heart, “Hugo” is a film that should be enjoyed the most by mature viewers savvy enough to revisit (or find out more about) the origins and magical powers of film as a mass medium.

Over the past decade or so, Scorsese has struggled to find material suitable for his considerable talents.  With the exception of “The Departed,” which finally won him the 2006 Best Director Oscar, Scorsese has made a compromised historical epic, “Gangs of New York,” a glitzy but rather conventional biopic, “The Aviator,” and, most recently, “Shutter Island,” a trashy thriller-horror which divided critics.

All the aforementioned titles have starred Leonardo DiCaprio, and with the exception of “Gangs of New York,” all of them found an appreciative audience; they were commercial hits, grossing north of $100 million at the box-office.  Yet something was missing–call it a personal signature, a unique vision, an emotional affinity between the filmmaker and his texts.  Many directors—Brian De Palma, Roman Polanski–could have made those past pictures, perhaps even more effectively (and less expensively) than Scorsese.

It is therefore a pleasure to report that “Hugo” represents Scorsese at the top of his form, functioning in this picture as a movie-magician himself, in complete control of the machinery and toys of the story, as well as the technical properties of the movie medium. Visually, this big-budget, special effects film, courtesy of British producer Graham King, is ultra-polished, in moments even dazzling (I’ll discuss these aspects later).

It’s hard to think of another filmmaker, who has shown such passion fro movie lore and film history as Scorsese, and not just because of his Film Preservation Foundation, which is now globally oriented.  Though based on a particular literary source material, Brian Selznick’s award-winning N.Y. Times illustrated children’s bestseller, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” “Hugo” feels like a quintessential Scorsese film, one that features some of his recurrent themes and characters.

“Hugo” is not flawless.  The first, pre-credit, sequence, is rather weak (not much happens), and the acting of the lead leaves much to be desired,  However, the film gets better and better as it goes along, and the last couple of reels, which essentially represent Scorsese’s love letter to the magical power of movies, are truly exuberant, endearing—and touching, too.

The movie is replete of ironies, contradictions, paradoxes, and richly dense in cinematic allusions.  For starters, “Hugo” begins as a classic Charles Dickens tale, about an orphan boy who lives in a train station. It then continues, in its middle section, as a mystery-adventure, about the bond (and first love) between two teenagers, both parentless. And it concludes on highly exuberant note, with Scorsese’s paying homage to the pioneering and revolutionary filmmaker, Georges Melies (1861-1938), showing on screen images of his best-known work, the 1902 fantasy (and fantastical) “A Trip to the Moon” (“Le Voyage dans la Lune”).

Unlike his peer and friend Spielberg, Scorsese has never been a natural or smooth storyteller, and most of his great pictures (“Mean Street,” “Taxi Driver, Raging Bull”) are far more impressive as in-depth character studies than as plot-driven tales.  (It may not be a coincidence that two of his weakest pictures, “Cape Fear” in 1991 and last year’s Shutter Island,” are his most plot-oriented movies).

Like Scorsese’s best films, “Hugo” has a slender plot, based on a rather simple premise: a wily, extremely resourceful boy, who lost his loving father in a fire accident, embarks on a long, arduous quest to unlock a secret left to him by his father.  I don’t mean to undermine the secret, because it’s the kind of plot element that has a transformative and transcendental impact not only on Hugo, but also on all those around him.

Even though the saga, which is adapted to the big screen by John Logan, is set in Paris in 1931, “Hugo” unfolds as heightened version of that time and place.  Despite the particular details, there’s something about the film’s conceptual and visual design that lends it a more abstract and universal quality.  (Historically speaking, “Hugo” takes place at the same time as another charming fable, the silent, black-and-white feature, “The Artist”).

Visually, “Hugo” begins with a fast, dazzling forward-tracking shot of a busy train station, with the camera sweeping along until it lands with a close-up of a boy, Hugo, hiding behind the station’s big clock.

Hugo, a boy of 12, provides the film’s thematic center, sort of a link among the various secondary characters and subplots.  Nice looking, with big, wide blue eyes, Asa Butterfield (who had appeared in “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”) gives a decent (though not great) performance.

The script is sketchy in providing specific characteristics about Hugo.  In a flashback, we see his close bond with his father (Jude Law), their work together on a robotic figure (an extremely elaborate automaton which can write), and how the father suddenly dies in a fire.  Picked up by his coarse uncle (Ray Winstone), Hugo ends up living with him in a train station, in disguise, doing a man’s job.  When the uncle leaves, never to come back, Hugo is left to his own devices.

In the first chapters, we see how he survives, stealing bread and milk, hiding behind the big clock, chased by a nasty cop (Sacha Baron Cohen), looking for orphans. Turning point occurs when he meets Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz, one of the few Americans in the cast), a bright, resourceful girl, who becomes his reliable companion and ultimately helps Hugo get out of his shell, emotionally.

Though living more comfortably, Isabelle is also parentless—she resides with her god-parents, “Papa Georges” and “Mama Jeanne.”  The friendship is mutually rewarding.  An intellectually curious, avid reader, Isabelle uses a complex and sophisticated vocabulary Hugo doesn’t fully comprehend.  More importantly, she introduces Hugo to the station’s bookstore owner (Christopher Lee), who despite his looks turns out to be a benevolent figure, giving Hugo special editions of “Robin Hood,” “David Copperfield,” and other classic literature.

In return, Hugo takes Isabelle to the movies, where time and again we see his favorite silent comedian, Harold Lloyd, hanging from a giant clock.  (Quite masterfully, Scorsese later recreates this iconic image with Hugo replacing Lloyd).

Scorsese doesn’t neglect the mystery aspects of the story—in line with the desire of young teenagers, who are always poking and prying at people they meet, trying to figure out what’s going on around them, or how something works.

The tale’s key role is that of Georges Méliès, called here “Papa Georges” (Ben Kingsley), a bitter, ornery man, in rapid decline, to say the least.  The real-life Melies has made 500 films, at times shooting three films a week during the day, and magic shows in the evening.  Scorsese identifies completely with the man who gave his all the movies, a visionary who created a whole new art form, but then suddenly loses his fortune—his audiences, and luck—and decides to burn the remaining body of his films.  That’s how he winds up sitting behind the counter of a toy store in a quiet part of the Gare Montparnasse.

For the sake of coherence, Scorsese has opted to cast all the main roles with British actors (By the way, Spielberg has done the same with “The Adventures of Tin Tin” and “War Horse”).   The acting ensemble is comprised of both new talent, such as Asa Butterfield, who plays the lead, and Chloe Grace Moretz, as well as respectable stars of the U.K. theater and film worlds, such as Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jude Law, Ray Winstone, Frances de la Tour, and last but not least Christopher Lee.

Equally stellar to the acting ensemble is the behind-the-camera crew, many of whose members are previous Scorsese collaborators, including Robert Richardson (who also shot “The Aviator”), production designer Dante Ferretti, costume designer Sandy Powell, and, of course, the brilliant composer Howard Shore, and ace editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

Judging by the end result, “Hugo” is a charming movie, a classy and classic fable, both in front and behind the camera, an adventure taken by the filmmaker in shaping existing material to his own needs and desires. It’s also a film that demands patience of the viewers (particularly in the first half an hour, which is repetitious and uneventful).

Though looking back on the past fondly and nostalgically, “Hugo” may be one of Scorsese’s most upbeat and optimistic sagas, one that like many of Spielberg’s films, ends with the reaffirmation of family and home as a safe, protective, and loving place Hugo can finally call home.

Cast

Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley)

Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen)

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield)

Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz)

Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone)

Lisette (Emily Mortimer)

Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee)

Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory)

Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg)

Madame Emilie (Frances de la Tour)

Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths)

Hugo’s Father (Jude Law)

Credits

A Paramount release presented with GK Films of a GK Films/Infinitum Nihil production.

Produced by Graham King, Tim Headington, Martin Scorsese, Johnny Depp.

Executive producers, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, David Crockett, Georgia Kacandes, Christi Dembrowski, Barbara Defina.

Directed by Martin Scrosese.

Screenplay, John Logan, based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.

Camera, Robert Richardson.

Editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.

Music, Howard Shore; music supervisor, Randall Poster.

Production designer, Dante Ferretti; supervising art director, David Warren; art directors, Rod McLean, Luca Tranchino, Christian Huband, Stuart Rose, Martin Foley; set decorator, Francesca Lo Schiavo.

Sound, John Midgley; supervising sound editors, Philip Stockton, Eugene Gearty; re-recording mixer, Tom Fleischman.

Special effects supervisor, Joss Williams; visual effects supervisor, Ben Grossmann; visual effects, Pixomondo, Lola VFX, Uncharted Territory, Industrial Light and Magic, Matte World Digital.

Casting, Ellen Lewis.

MPAA Rating. PG.

Running time: 121 Minutes.