Broken Machines and Broken People

Lost cinematic treasures and the mechanics of humanity are revisited in Martin Scorsese’s 3D  family epic Hugo. A powerful, poetic, and visually beautiful film, Hugo receives its name from the film’s protagonist, played by Asa Butterfield. Hugo is a melancholic orphan, living in 1930s Paris. Hugo dwells secretly in a train station, where the mechanically-minded tween has taken over for his runaway Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), operating the station’s clocks and secretly inhabiting the tiny apartment buried deep within the station’s bowels.

But Hugo was not always a baguette-stealing loner, dodging the orphan-snatching Station Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen). He once lived happily with his clock maker father (Jude Law), learning the joys and intricacies of mechanics. Before his father was killed tragically in a fire, the pair were working to restore an old automoton: an intricate, robot-like wind-up toy. After his father’s death, Hugo intends to finish the invention by stealing spare parts from the train station’s toy merchant. Caught red-handed, Hugo comes face to face with Pappa Georges (Ben Kingsley), the toy shop’s owner. Hugo’s notebook, which houses intricate drawings of the automoton, is immediately seized by Georges, only to trigger a curious and emotional reaction from the old man. To reclaim his notebook, Hugo befriends Papa George’s god-daughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), an orphan in her own right. When Hugo discovers that Isabelle carries the heart-shaped key that unlocks the automoton, the pair discover that Pappa Georges is not only the creator of the automoton, but of countless other great cinematic inventions.

If nothing else, Hugo is a visually stunning film. Personally, I find it incredibly bothersome when a film haphazardly employs 3D to bring in the crowds for a big opening weekend. When a script doesn’t call for the aesthetically intricate appeal of 3D, the byproduct is awkwardly filmed, looking as if most of the unnecessarily reaching and jumping 3D moments were but an after-thought of post-production.

Scorsese understands these obstacles and avoids them easily. The mechanics of machines, humans, and the hustle and bustle of a train station move together in a seemingly lifelike, layered, and harmonious fashion. The opening sequence of the film, which shows as Hugo narrowly avoids the Station Inspector, runs between the intricate workings of the station’s clocks, and finishes as Hugo gazes from behind a suspended clock face at the happy pedestrian life within the train station, is simply breathtaking. This nuts and bolts symphony of intricate humanist movement is exactly what 3D was made for.

But the 3D of Hugo offers a paradoxical tension as well. Scorsese, a cinefile in his own right, uses Hugo to pay tribute to Georges Méliès, one of the pioneer directors of moving pictures.  Méliès’ career of fantastical, epic films acted as a counter-argument to the Lumière brothers’ non-fiction push. Watching the simple, quaint beauties of Méliès’ work, framed through Scorsese’s 3D kaleidoscope lens of cutting-edge technology, is an odd experience, as we are unintentionally forced to examine how filmmaking has changed and what exactly has been lost

Still, this poetically layered film offers simple and calm joys, as well. Hugo optimistically explores the themes of legacy, observation, and the repairing of the human spirit. We are treated to an astutely knowing performance by Asa Butterfield, a portrayal that is a modernist apparition of an orphaned Ricky Fitts. His woeful, huge eyes seem to be pulled directly from a William Blake poem. Chloë Grace Moretz is perfectly charming as Isabelle, the linguistically astute book-worm thirsting for adventure. Ben Kingsley masterfully inhabits the body of a debunked film master, “broken” of his spirit’s mechanical purpose to create films. Kingsley maturely anchors the cast’s young energy and gives the film a sense of heart and purpose.

Without the awkwardly gawking hilarity of Sasha Baron Cohen, this heavy film might not have fulfilled its very real purpose of appealing to families. Playing the war veteran Station Inspector with a leg brace prone to sticking at inopportune moments, Baron’s well-documented flare for physical comedy is welcomely small, authentic, and shy. He is able to broaden the dimensions of the children’s film “bad guy” in his charming and misguided attempts at wooing Lisette, the station’s flower vendor (Emily Mortimer). It is also through Cohen’s scenes about the station that we are introduced to the other delightful station patrons, which include  the station’s librarian Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), the lady with the dog, Madame Emilie (Frances de la Tour), and her bumbling suitor Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths). This pleasing band of bystanders are entirely necessary to counter some of the heavier themes of this broken person and machine narrative. This is where Hugo’s spirit lies.

As far as its Oscar future goes, it has never been brighter, thanks to its 11 nominations from The Critics Choice Movie Awards. However, while I do believe it will receive the gamut of technical award nominations, it could possibly be shut out for most major categories, with the exception of Martin Scorsese for Best Director. Still, as the Oscars have changed to Best Picture category to include anywhere from 5-10 nominations, Hugo is still deservingly primed to nab one of the coveted spots.

What did you think of Hugo? Are you taking the kids to see it, or are you opting for The Muppets instead? Comment and join the conversation.

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