"Hugo" is rare treasure to behold--for kids and film scholars

Hugo (2011)
127 min., rated PG.
Grade: A -

Martin Scorsese would seem like an unusual choice to realize the 2007 Caldecott-winning book The Invention of Hugo Cabret (by Brian Selznick) for the silver screen, being the man that made "Taxi Driver" and "Goodfellas." But he seems to be so inspired by the source material that "Hugo" would not be the rapturous, enchanting treasure it is without Scorsese as its conductor. Though marketed as a family film, "Hugo" is about adventure as much as it is a love letter to film history, preservation and everything cinema, and therefore grows to be targeted more towards film historians and scholars. Laymen and young kids with A.D.D. might find the journey long and tedious, but should wait until they're old enough to see what an instant classic really looks like. 

In the 1930s, a twelve-year-old orphan named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield, full of heartache) lives in the walls of a hustling-and-bustling Parisian train station, keeping the clocks wound and ticking inside the tower. It's been a hard knock life for Hugo. After his clock-making father (Jude Law) died in a fire, Hugo was only left an automaton that Dad found in a museum and worked on up until his death. His sozzled guardian, Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), took him under his wing to wind the clocks at the station before leaving the young boy on his own. Now, around the clock, resourceful Hugo looks for clock parts, living off of stealing baguettes and evading the limping Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his Doberman Maximillian. He even pilfers tiny parts from Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), the cranky old man in charge of a toy shop kiosk, who finally catches the boy and snatches up the notebook that Hugo keeps with all of his father's mechanical illustrations. When he follows the toymaker back home, Hugo grabs the attention of Georges' bookish godchild, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). She befriends Hugo and agrees to help get his notebook back before her uncle burns it. In return, Hugo introduces Isabelle to his love of the movies and she will be part of his adventure. Together, these two orphans will solve the mystery behind a heart-shaped key to the automaton and uncover the identity of turn-of-the-century visionary Georges Méliès. 

Though tinkering with its gears in the first half to find its focus, the narrative in John Logan's script then moves like clockwork. If a filmmaker wants to sneak a film history class into their own work, it might as well be Scorsese who creates loving movie magic. As a salute to the Silent Film era, film pioneer/cinemagician Georges Méliès and the 1902 landmark film "A Trip to the Moon" are more than just referenced but become organic narrative tissue that will remain undiscussed for the viewer to discover on their own. There's an homage to Harold Lloyd's slapsticky stunt hanging off the hands of a tower clock in "Safety Last!" and another to the Lumieres' 1895 one-minute short film novelty "Arrival of a Train at the Station." It won't matter how much knowledge you've acquired on the history of motion pictures, but it will surely deepen one's enjoyment. 

In just the opening minutes, Scorsese shows he still has the technical craft that he's made his name on, with a sweeping pre-credits tracking shot through the train station that's so visually fluid, immersive and nearly dizzying. From what we've come to expect of Scorsese, "Hugo" has wonderfully gorgeous production value. Integrated with Robert Richardson's lustrous cinematography and Thelma Schoonmaker's graceful editing, Dante Ferretti's ("Gangs of New York") production design and Francesca Lo Schiavo's ("Shutter Island") set decoration are exquisite and richly detailed, as always, in recreating 1930s, Paris. Never have CG images, which usually look so airless and processed on screen, felt so magical and real to their fantastical tone. 

Fourteen-year-old Butterfield (2008's "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas") is just right as the protagonist role of Hugo. He's such a wonderfully instinctive child actor that his big blue eyes say more than words themselves. Moretz, speaking in an impressive British accent, is just as excellent in the role of Isabelle. Her intelligence, pluck, and propensity for hundred-dollar words make her an appealing young heroine. The two of them together aren't hard to root for. In the key role of Georges, Kingsley is eccentric and heart-rending, a performance of more color and feeling than anything he's done in years. A hammed-up Baron Cohen provides broad villainy and some well-timed physical comedy, and some empathy before the end. His crush on flower vendor Lisette (played by regularly lovely Emily Mortimer) has little reason to belong, but Baron Cohen makes his wooing with three modes of his "dazzling smile" amusing and kind of sweet. The supporting cast solidly fill out their roles as station merchants, including Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths, as Madame Emilie and Monsieur Frick who share a flirtation that gradually turns into more; Christopher Lee, in a less threatening role, as helpful bookkeeper Monsieur Labisse; and Helen McCrory whose role as Mama Jeanne, Georges' wife, runs deep with emotional history. 

Happy endings might only happen in the movies, as one character expresses, but "Hugo" is a visually and emotionally dazzling achievementa movie with a heart and a soul that's able to evoke awe and wonder. Scorsese's paean to the dreams that inspire magic in the movies is something special.