“This might be an adventure!” exclaims Chloë Moretz’s earnest Isabelle, shortly after meeting the titular Hugo in Martin Scorsese’s latest. And it’s true, Hugo certainly holds an adventure for its two lead characters. But that moment holds a deeper truth: the awareness that, for children, the world is still a magical place, capable of anything. There’s a kinetic excitement to being young and away from your parents, because possibility has an unknowable depth, and you haven’t yet been infected by the rot of cynicism. Scorsese, like many directors before him, plainly adores this moment in time, because for him it is connected unequivocally with the magic of the cinema.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in the walls of a Parisian train station, persistently monitoring the clamor below. Colorful characters like the evil Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), the ancient bibliothecary Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), and the sad old toymaker Papa George (Ben Kingsley) round out his insular world, and he learns their stories safe behind the clocks he cares for. It wasn’t so long ago that Hugo lived with his father (Jude Law), a brilliant watchmaker who taught his son everything he could. But Hugo’s father was killed in a fire, and Hugo’s uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) brought him back to the train station, using the boy to take over his routine of clock maintenance, and abandoning him there. Hugo, in between caring for the myriad clocks of the station, is desperately trying to fix a mysterious automaton which serves as the last link to his father. For the boy, the beautiful machine holds the secret to his father’s death, and his own abandonment.
Even despite the occasional film that doesn’t fit snugly into the Scorsese canon, Hugo is a first for the director. There’s nothing in the man’s filmography that comes close to the colorful shininess on display here, but even still, this is not a kid’s movie. Or not exclusively anyway. Yes, Hugo paints its characters in broad strokes, and sure, the film has two leads whose combined age is less than 30, but the trailer and marketing are still misleading. There’s a much deeper story at the heart of Hugo, and it has very little to do with age. Scorsese’s interest in the story is surely because of its connection to the world of moving pictures, specifically the tale of Georges Méliès, a turn-of-the-century filmmaker heralded by many as the first “Cinemagician.” Méliès, an illusionist by trade, recognized film’s potential for transportation, and created one of the most iconic early pictures, A Trip to the Moon. But it’s not legacy Scorsese–and author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret Brian Selznick–find truly interesting. This is a story intent on revealing the beauty of imagination and the consequence of dreams, and it does so with wild success.
A big element to that success is the performance of Asa Butterfield, yet another child actor who seems destined for great things (he’s already been nabbed for the title character in the long-gestating Ender’s Game). Scorsese has always respected talent, and once again has focused his camera on a heterogeneous performer whose contributions are myriad. Hugo Cabret is an emotionally pendulous character, and Butterfield is exceptional in his range, one moment joyfully sharing the enchantment of film, and the next wallowing in his orphanhood. It’s a role surely boosted by the fellowship, as Chloë Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Jude Law, and even Sacha Baron Cohen all give great performances. But Hugo is the focal point, and Scorsese, evoking decades of successful casting, has again gotten the most out of his film’s lynchpin.
What begins as a mystical, mysterious, journey film for kids, ends up coming back down to earth somewhere between the second and third act, and thank god for that. As the former, it’s a fun experiment for a classic director, and a beautiful holiday film. But as the latter, it’s a movie about the transcendent experience of going to the movies, and the magic of cinema is universal. It’s a movie about finding one’s place in the world, wherever that may be. While many once-subversive directors (or writers, or actors, or…) have gotten older and felt the pull to make something that their grandchildren can appreciate, this is not an instance of Martin Scorsese putting together a quick and easy shoot to garner a little love from Moms. Like all of his films, Scorsese is interested in the truth. It’s just that, in this case, the truth happens to put a smile on everybody’s face.