Martin Scorsese’s enchanting “Hugo” is a thrillingly immersive adventure. It is about two orphans trying to solve a mystery. It is about the way that stories help us make sense of life. It stretches from the very beginnings of movies and the transformation of images through imagination into pure magic to technological advances that go beyond anything we’ve ever seen before. Scorsese, perhaps the greatest living master of cinematic storytelling and certainly the most passionate movie fan in history, waited until he and the medium reached a point where 3D was ready to be more than a stunt and become an integral element of the story and with his first film for families he stretches the frame in ways it has never been used before.
It is based on the Caldecott award winning book by Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is a Parisian orphan in the early 20th century who lives in the train station. His inventor father (Jude Law) was killed in a fire, so he came to live with his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone), who wound and maintained the clocks at the station and slept in a little forgotten room inside the clockworks. Now the uncle has disappeared and Hugo is trying to keep the clocks going so no one will suspect that his uncle is gone. He is also trying to hide from the station inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen), a WWI veteran with an injured hand and leg who likes to catch stray children and send them to the orphanage. Most of all, he is trying to repair a mysterious robotic machine that his father found in a museum.
They had been working on it together and with the help of his father’s notebook and the gears from some toys he has stolen from the station’s toy shop he is getting close. But then the proprietor of the toy shop (Ben Kingsley) has confiscated the notebook. The proprietor’s adopted daughter, the book-loving Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz of “Kick-Ass”) who is hoping for an adventure, holds the key to the mystery in more ways than one. From the opening moment, with ticking sounds that surround us as Hugo peeks out from the number 4 on a huge clock dial. The intricate pendulums, gears, and catwalks hidden inside the upper reaches of the station are enthralling, with brilliant production design by Dante Ferretti that seems to surround us.
Occasionally Scorsese will tease us a bit with 3D effects — the inspector’s nose is one example. But more often it is subtly done. Dust motes glisten several feet in front of the screen to create a sustained illusion of depth. The children’s search takes them to the movies and then to a library where they research the brief history of cinema from its invention by the Lumière brothers and the early audiences who jumped when they saw a train coming toward them on the screen. They see Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a giant clock in “Safety Last” and we get glimpses of classics from Buster Keaton’s “The General” to D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance.” And they meet a film scholar who has the last piece of the puzzle. Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan make the children’s adventure and the movie history mesh like the gears that operate the station clocks and the result is a rare story with something for every age. Scorsese lingers too long on Butterfield’s face and some of the other images and some of the scenes could be trimmed, but by the time it all comes together in a joyous celebration of film it is clear that the ultimate tribute to the cinematic giants is standing on their shoulders. Parents should know that this film includes sad loss of parents, a drunken adult, mistreatment of orphans, child thieves, jokes about uncertain paternity, and characters in peril.
Family discussion: How do you discover your purpose? Why didn’t Georges want to remember what he had done? Why was the inspector so harsh? Ask family members about a time they felt proud of fixing something.
If you like this, try: the book by Brian Selznick and the movies of Georges Méliès