One of the first films that was shown to my intro to film history class a few years ago was Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon.
For most of the class it seemed like their first foray into film from the very early 1900’s. I myself had only limited knowledge of the time period and had never seen or heard of a Méliès film before. Not surprisingly, the technological advancement and “tricks” Méliès pulled off in 1902 blew the class away.
Now just imagine watching one of those films at the dawn of its creation. In Hugo, Martin Scorsese gives us that opportunity, transporting us to 1930’s Paris, where we meet a less-than-happy Méliès (Ben Kingsley), who instead of making films is running his own toy shop inside of a train station, which is where he meets young titular character and soon-to-be unlikely friend Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield).
Right from the film’s opening moments it’s clear that Scorsese is intentionally sending us into a world of fantasy. The amount of digital recreation of the 1930’s isn’t hidden and with this being Scorsese’s first 3D film, how could it be? We swing into a bustling train station and are greeted by a warm palate of colors that feels too dreamy to be real.
In line with the surreal, transportative cinema it celebrates, Hugo too is an invention of dreams. There’s nothing usual or authentic about the world Hugo Cabret lives in. It’s hammed up, dolled up and glossed over in a superficial pretty. Yet at the same time it’s perfect and right to the point of the film. Like many of the films of Méliès – which sometimes featured human-sized lobsters and rockets flying into the face of moon – Hugo is a dream come to life. It’s half grounded in reasonable humanity but half elevated to existing in an all too fascinating world.
Told through the eyes of two children, Hugo celebrates cinema through the rediscovery of Méliès, who is hiding from his past and forgetting his once very successful career of filmmaking and storytelling which were largely identified with magic. The curiosity pursued by Hugo and new friend Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) is what drives Hugo. They have lively minds and desire knowledge, but both live in a world full of grown ups that from their perspective are mostly out to get them. And outside of another stray orphan are the two are the film’s only exuberant and curious youth to identify with. Hugo’s father died in an explosion, Méliès is a grumpy crab, Hugo’s uncle is a drunk and the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) is out to stop their joy and fun.
Halfway through the film, when Hugo learns his friend Isabelle has never seen a movie, Hugo explains to her that “the movies are our special place.” This, in an instant, sums up Scorsese’s adventure into 3D filmmaking and shifting his gears towards a style of film completely different than what has made him famous. For decades Scorsese has enjoyed success because the movies are all of our special places. It’s the only place we can feel okay watching someone get double crossed and shot in the head, only to walk out of the theater minutes later and transplanting ourselves back into the real world. With that, Scorsese is honoring the filmmakers who paved the way towards what cinema has always been, has become and will grow to become.
And while I don’t necessarily care to get into a comparison between Hugo and The Artist, the Oscar-winning film that also celebrated early cinema, I feel tempted to. It was amazing to me how much better and how much more of an imaginative film Hugo was than The Artist. Both, undisputed, were good films, but Hugo carried an extra piece of inspiration for me. While The Artist simply imitated early silent cinema in America, Hugo paid tribute through Scorsese’s own way. Using the book by Brian Selznick, John Logan and the rest of the crew who helped create the tasty visuals helped Scorsese manage to say thank you by creating his own personal ode to cinema and his own imaginative and spellbinding film instead of imitating. I think this works better in the long run.
Hugo is a fully realized imaginative dream. Like the cinema it celebrates, it too is a surreal joy to behold and a wonder to explore. I don’t think there was a more pleasurable viewing experience in 2011, making me regret not seeing this in 3D – something I rarely ever do. That said, Hugo is insatiable, attractive and leaves a smile on your face throughout. Scorsese made a film the whole family can enjoy.