To the surprise of many, the top two contenders for Best Picture of 2011 featured on the history of film in the early 20th century. One of them was the Oscar winning “silent” film, “THE ARTIST”. The other turned out to be Martin Scorsese’s endeavor of that year called “HUGO”.
Based upon Brian Selznick’s 2008 novel, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, “HUGO” told the story of a 12 year-old boy named Hugo Cabret, who lives with his widowed father, a clockmaker in 1931 Paris. Hugo’s father, who is a fan of Georges Méliès’s films, takes him to the theater on many occasions. When Hugo’s father dies in a museum fire, the boy is forced to live with his alcoholic Uncle Claude, who is also a watchmaker at the railway station, Gare Montparnasse. After teaching Hugo to maintain clocks, Claude disappears. His body is later found in the Seine River, drowned. Hugo lives between the walls of the railway station, maintaining clocks, stealing food and doing his best to avoid the attention of the tough stationmaster to avoid being shipped to a local orphanage.
He also becomes obsessed with repairing his father’s broken automaton – a mechanical man that writes with a pen. Convinced the automaton contains a message from his father, Hugo steals mechanical parts in order to repair the automaton. However, he is caught by a toy store owner, Papa Georges, who takes Hugo’s notebook from him, with notes and drawings for fixing the automaton. Hugo follows Georges home and befriends a girl close to his age named Isabelle and the latter’s goddaughter. When Hugo is finally able to repair the automaton, it produces a drawing straight from a Georges Méliès film. Thanks to the drawing and a film historian, Hugo and Isabelle discover that the latter’s godfather is the famous filmmaker, now financially strapped and forgotten.
When I first learned about “HUGO”, I heard that it was based upon a children’s book. And I found it unusual that Martin Scorsese would make a film for children. As it turned out, “HUGO” is more than just a story for children. It eventually turned out to be a peek into another chapter in film history, slowly focusing on the work of Georges Méliès, who was responsible for early silent films such as “A TRIP TO THE MOON” (1902) and “THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE” (2004). I noticed that Scorsese utilized his usual formula in unfolding the movie’s plot. As in most of his other movies, he slowly introduced the characters – both major and minor – before setting up his plot. And while this formula worked in such films as “GOODFELLAS”, “THE AGE OF INNOCENCE” and “CASINO”, it did not quite work for “HUGO”.
For me, “HUGO” suffered from two problems. One, the movie lingered just a bit too long on the introduction of all the characters – especially those who did not have any effect on Hugo’s situation or with the discovery . And because of this, the pacing in its first half dragged incredibly long. In fact, it dragged so long that I almost lost interest in finishing the film. It was not until Hugo managed to repair the automaton and continue his and his father’s love of films when life finally breathed into the film. From the moment the automaton produced the drawing of the moon from “A TRIP TO THE MOON”, I became increasingly interested in the film. “HUGO” soon became a interesting trip into the world of early French filmmaking. And it ended as a poignant story about how a boy’s love for his father and movies allowed a forgotten artist to be remembered by a new generation of filmgoers. I found myself practically on the verge of tears by the last frame.
If there was one aspect of “HUGO” that truly impressed me was the movie’s production design. Thanks to the legendary Dante Ferretti, it is truly one of the most beautiful looking films I have seen in the past few years. The movie’s visual style was enhanced by David Warren’s supervision of the movie’s art direction, and cinematographer Robert Richardson’s recreation of the Multicolor process – which he also used in the first half of “THE AVIATOR”. Although I was mildly impressed by Sandy Powell’s costume designs, it was Francesca Lo Schiavo’s set decorations, especially for the re-creation of the Gare Montparnasse station circa 1931, which really impressed me. In the end, the movie almost conveyed a Jules Verne visual style that I suspect seemed appropriate for a film about Georges Méliès. I could comment on Howard Shore’s score. But if I must be honest, I have no memories of it.
The film’s other real strength came from the cast led by young Asa Butterfield’s poignant portrayal of Hugo Calvert. He was ably supported by Chloë Grace Moretz, who gave a charming performance as Hugo’s friend Isabelle, and Helen McCrory’s skillful portrayal of Méliès’s supportive wife. Performers such as Ray Winstone, Jude Law, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths gave solid, yet brief performances. But aside from Butterfield, the most impressive performance came from Ben Kingsley, who was superb as Méliès. Kingsley conveyed every aspect of Méliès’s personality and life experiences. I am still astounded that he was never given any kind of acting nomination for his performance.
I cannot deny that “HUGO” is a very beautiful looking film. And I also cannot deny that I was mesmerized by the film’s second half – especially when it focused on Hugo and Isabelle’s discovery of Méliès’ past as a filmmaker. The movie also benefited from a first-rate cast and especially from superb performances from Asa Butterfield and Ben Kingsley. But Martin Scorsese tried to create a small epic out of a story that was part children’s tale/part film history. Which is why I believe “HUGO” fell short of becoming – at least in my eyes – one of the better movies of 2011.