We were very excited to see what a Martin Scorsese film for kids would look like. The idea of the director of Goodfellas and Taxi Driver taking on a children’s book was pretty exciting, though we were a bit worried when we heard it would be in 3D. Could he make that third dimension work for him, and could he tell a story with a U certificate?
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in the Paris train station keeping the clocks running. He’s trying to fix an automaton that he’s convinced holds a message from his late father (Jude Law), but the clues keep leading back to short-tempered toy shop owner Georges (Ben Kingsley). With the help of Georges’ adopted daughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), Hugo sets out to uncover the mystery.
Well, it’s not exactly aimed at kids, or at least it’s not exactly aimed at kids specifically. Scorsese has chosen a subject very dear to his heart: the preservation and restoration of silent cinema. Yes, there are adventures, and yes, there are all those great trappings of the classic children’s stories like the loss of family and the need to break the rules in order to pursue adventure, but this has the master’s fingerprints all over it.
Quite right too. As you’d expect from a director like Scorsese, Hugo is a visual wonder. Turning the bustling, smoke-filled train station into his playground, the director lets loose with the camera and flies from the train tracks to the pinnacle of the clock tower. The magic of the period setting combined with the steam-power machinery. What’s more, the fact that it’s a love-letter to the silent era provides the director with an array of visual trickery to pull out of his sleeve like a magician. It’s easy to picture him grinning as he realised that this would be the perfect opportunity to stage some silent movie jokes.
It’s difficult to say whether younger kids will care about why Papa Georges is so upset that Hugo is determined to bring the past back, or why Hugo and Isabelle’s adventure pauses about an hour into the film so that film historian Rene Tabard (Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Stuhlbarg) can deliver a lecture on Méliès, but that’s not all there is to Hugo. There’s a beating, occasionally a little too sentimental, heart at work here that’s wonderfully brought to life by the gorgeous photography and set design and by the cast.
Kingsley gives a wonderful performance as Georges, not only showcasing his tremendous rage but also getting to have some fun. Butterfield and Moretz (Kick Ass) are excellent, and there are some brief turns from Law, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, and Sir Christopher Lee. Comic relief comes in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen’s station inspector. He may irritate some but it’s a performance that grows on you as the film progresses, with some hysterically funny moments.
At over two hours it may be a little long and a little heavy on the film history for very young viewers, and there are some moments that don’t quite work, but it’s a heartfelt tribute to the wonder of cinema that doesn’t forget to bring a bit of wonder itself. Oh, and the 3D’s OK but not essential.
Verdict: Visually superb and a moving performance from Kingsley. But not only is it a wonderful love letter to a cinematic era too often forgotten, it’s a great adventure too.