In the winter of 1896, Auguste and Louis Lumiere premiered one of the world’s first movies, The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. The fifty-second film shows exactly what its title promises: a train pulling into a station. While plain to modern tastes, a locomotive powering across the silver screen scared the pantaloons right off the nineteenth-century audiences unaccustomed to the realism of film. A scene in Hugo (also in the trailer) pays homage to the Lumieres, but also injects 21st century Real™ 3-D techno-vision — a subtle commentary on the progress of the medium (even more realistic today, but nobody loses their pantaloons). The promotional material for Hugo advertised the typical pre-teen world of magical wonder, a knock-off Narnia or The Golden Compass 2: The Clock; instead, Scorsese delivers a surprisingly personal film about coming of age, cinema history and the profundity of creation. I liked it, but I think kids might be bored by all the two-hour running time and the watchmaking metaphors.
The eponymous Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan who lives inside the steam tunnels of a French metro station. After Hugo’s family of clockmakers dies, Hugo uses his inherited tinkering abilities and winds the station’s giant clocks for a warm place to sleep and store the automaton his father gave him. Since orphans are not conducive to railway commutes, a security guard with a leg brace (Sacha Baron Cohen) constantly tries to catch Hugo and his robot. With the help of a precocious blond girl, Isabelle, (Chloë Grace Moretz), Hugo learns the robot is related to a famous French filmmaker from the early 20th century — and then the movie becomes a movie about movies.
For 3-D, there’s hardly any explosions or climatic fight scenes! Of course, this is one of Hugo’s biggest strengths. Scorsese uses 3-D for depth and dimension, not cheap pop-outs or literal 4th wall breaks. Pan shots of gears grinding, clocks chiming and machines in motion give Hugo a kinetic aesthetic. Like a clock, the motion is purposeful — Hugo and his family are watchmakers, after all (it doesn’t take a deist to see the significance of a world founded on a well-calculated order). Also remember: Scorsese is dissecting early cinema history by juxtaposing cutting-edge filmmaking of the 21st century. It’s pretty lofty stuff. It hardly feels like a kids movie: if the intellectual rigor isn’t enough to scare the kids away, maybe the dreary setting of the Great Depression or the adults who all seem to despise children will. Yet, Hugo is more significant in the genre of Scorsese than family-friendly classics. Hugo is a boy obsessed with watching, tinkering and creation. It’s hard not to draw parallels to little Marty — a sickly child stuck watching his peers from a bedroom window — dreaming of the escapes of filmmaking. Who knew the guy who made Mean Streets would finish out his career making a kids movie that reaffirms the narrative magic of film while proving 3-D doesn’t have to be a gimmick?