Theatrical Review: Full of secret gears and hidden magic, Martin Scorsese’s beautiful Hugo is not exactly what it seems. Rather than a “family film,” it’s a glorious ode to the life-giving and healing power of creativity—as well as a tribute to filmmaking and its rich history.
Yes. Well, sort of. Screenwriter John Logan’s adaptation of Brian Selznick’s illustrated book The Invention of Hugo Cabret focuses on a young orphan hiding out in a Paris train station in the 1930s, and the boy’s exploration of a mystery that involves a mechanical automaton man and a prickly older toy maker (Ben Kingsley). There are no mobsters, no murders, and no classic-rock soundtrack. But Hugo is still pure Scorsese—the director’s deep love and mastery of filmmaking fills every shot.
2) Who is Hugo?
You mean who’s the actor? British child performer Asa Butterfield (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) plays the title character with quiet watchfulness and acuity. It doesn’t hurt that Butterfield looks a lot like a young Malcolm McDowell—his eyes have that perfect mix of sad, knowing awareness and open innocence. As for Hugo the character, he’s a resourceful street-urchin survivor, orphaned by the loss of his tinkering father (Jude Law) and living inside the station’s giant clock tower.
Folded into Scorsese’s grand, cinematic vision, the film’s other actors sparkle nicely alongside Butterfield, including Chloë Grace Moretz as Hugo’s newfound partner in mystery solving; Sacha Baron Cohen as the film’s terrific comic relief, a dogged-but-damaged truancy officer out to catch the boy; and best of all, Kingsley as the irritable, broken, toy-shop owner who’s also hiding secrets and loss.
4) Do I Need to See it in 3D?
If possible, yes. 3D haters balked when Scorsese announced his plans for Hugo, but when it comes to using film and visual technology to its utmost, the director doesn’t mess around. Not only are cinematographer Robert Richardson’s rich vistas and warm colors a treat, but he and Scorsese masterfully use 3D to pull us into Hugo’s world, through the depths of the cavernous train station and into the tower’s layers of clockwork gears and cogs.
5) What’s the Film Really About?
Hugo’s only weakness is it doesn’t entirely work as a rollicking boy’s adventure or a heartwarming family tale—the film is carefully crafted and unfolds at a slower pace than viewers might expect from a “kids’ movie.” Scorsese hopes to fill the audience with the love he feels for film and educate them on its history and need for film restoration and preservation. Along the way, Hugo becomes less a character and more a lens through which the director projects that love.
Hugo’s last third celebrates film’s power to capture dreams and a how the creative expression of pure imagination can mend broken souls. Touchingly, the film ends up being just as much about human restoration and preservation.