Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’: An exuberant adaptation
By Ann Hornaday
Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011
When Martin Scorsese announced that he would make his first 3-D movie - and a PG-rated family film, no less - several of his fans pronounced themselves flummoxed. Scorsese, that cinematic purist, succumbing to the cheesy monetizing fad of the moment? Scorsese, climbing on the Katzenberg-Cameron more-is-more bandwagon? The man who achieved more depth of field through lighting, camera technique and clever staging than "Clash of the Titans" could pull off on its best day in the lab? Et tu, Marty?
Ah, but back then we didn't know that the movie Scorsese would make was "Hugo," his exuberant, if occasionally uneven, adaptation of Brian Selznick's movie-inspired illustrated novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret." If ever the movie gods were to smile on an adaptation, it would be Scorsese's take on Selznick's bestselling book, a valentine to the cinematic artists whose work the filmmaker has toiled so tirelessly to champion and preserve.
Strangely, Scorsese's very passion for the subject matter turns out to be both a blessing and a curse for "Hugo," which begins with one of the filmmaker's signature bravura tracking shots, this time through a cavernous train station in 1930s Paris. The camera is following the title character, a 12-year-old boy who, through a series of tragic circumstances, has ended up living secretly just below the station's ceiling, carefully tending to and fixing its clocks while he cadges the odd croissant or bottle of milk from the kiosks below. When he's not scrounging for food, he's gathering trinkets and tools to fix an eerily lifelike metal automaton that represents his last link to a once-happy life.
Hugo, played by Asa Butterfield with a milkily dolorous expression and limited emotional range, exists largely unseen by the denizens of the station, even though he regards their interactions with rapt fascination. These vignettes of the human comedy constitute some of the most delightful sequences of "Hugo," which was written for the screen by John Logan. Like the back-alley melodramas of "Rear Window," the stories Hugo sees through his clock face frames unfold like little silent romances, such as when a portly gentleman seeks to woo a lady in a cafe, only to be rebuffed by her nippy little dog; or when the station's martinet of an inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) tries valiantly to plaster on a fake smile to flirt with a comely flower seller (a radiantly Pickford-esque Emily Mortimer).
Cohen, it turns out, owns most of the comic moments in "Hugo," in which he manages to provide a few dashes of awkward slapstick. But for the most part, it's a somber affair, its self-seriousness only deepening when Hugo runs afoul of a grumpy toy seller (Ben Kingsley) and his goddaughter, a mystery-loving bookworm named Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz).
With its gorgeous sets and superb camerawork by Robert Richardson, "Hugo" splashes across the screen with elegant, visually vibrant flair - although it's not entirely clear what 3-D brings to the enterprise, other than the truly terrifying stunt of Cohen's leering face looming into the audience. While Hugo and Isabelle seek to solve a mystery having to do with the automaton and a heart-shaped key, what should be a project inflected with mischief and spontaneity takes on all the excitement of a starchy lecture on the history of narrative cinema in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. (A working knowledge of the silent films of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd will come in handy.) The proceedings take on an even fustier air when a film professor named Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg) arrives.
But during "Hugo's" final 20 minutes or so, when Scorsese mounts a lavish reenactment of those early days of the art form, the film truly comes to life, as the story's preoccupation with mechanics and logistical dot-connecting gives way to imagination, magic and swashes of lurid color. It's as if, having mastered the gear works and darker impulses of the medium he so intemperately adores, Scorsese can only access its lightness and lyricism if he's channeling someone else's vision. No matter: With the director so clearly in his element and so affectionately in control, "Hugo" ends as a triumph, bursting with the poetry, verve and irrepressible love befitting a match made in movie heaven.
Contains mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking.