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Scorsese works magic with 'Hugo'

Posted: December 15, 2011 - 9:56am
AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Jaap Buitendijk
Asa Butterfield portrays Hugo Cabret in a scene from “Hugo.” The film, adapted from Brian Selznick’s award-winning illustrated book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” is about a 12-year-old orphan who lives in a 1930 Paris train station.

"Hugo"
Paramount Pictures
2 hours, 6 minutes

Was anyone else a little dubious when they heard that Martin Scorsese was directing a magical 3-D family-friendly tale about a little boy living in a Paris train station in the 1920s? Unless the titular Hugo was on the run from the mob, or perhaps working as a double agent in the Police Nationale, this seems more like a movie you might get from Spielberg or a pre-wierdo motion capture Robert Zemeckis.

But no, it's Scorsese who reportedly was so disappointed in the current crop of 3-D films, he set out to show what the medium could really do. I'll admit, the 3-D was pretty cool, but the legendary director also happens to have made a beautiful, heart-warming, and utterly spellbinding movie in the process.

Hugo Cabret lives within the winding hidden passages set inside the walls of a bustling Paris Metro station. He is, however, not a vagrant or an orphan. Hugo has a job -- it's just that he's the only one who knows he has it. When his father tragically dies, Hugo is whisked off to the station with his drunken lout of an uncle. The uncle is tasked with keeping all clocks in the station, huge mechanized timepieces, running, and he begins to train Hugo to do the same. When his caretaker disappears, Hugo simply continues the work, unseen and unpaid. He steals food to survive, and something else as well. Mechanical toys. Hugo has another secret, besides that of his existence at the station: an automaton -- a mechanical man that is all the boy has to remember of his father. The machine is broken, but Hugo is sure that if he can fix it, it will reveal a message from his father.

This quest, however, will turn out to be merely the first step in a magical journey of discovery as Hugo struggles to find his purpose in the wider world.

It's hard to characterize "Hugo" as one type of movie or another. The first trailer I saw really emphasized the automaton, and while it's not unimportant, it's not the whole movie. I was afraid this was going to be a boy-and-his-robot kind of thing, and wasn't really all that jazzed.

What the trailer doesn't mention is that "Hugo" is about, in great part, the history and magic of movie-making. It revels in the amazement brought on by early cinema, and even places one of the geniuses of film, one the earliest pioneers of special effects, in the forefront of the cast.

I hesitate to say much more simply because I hate to spoil the surprise.

Since one of the driving forces to getting this movie made in the first place is the 3-D, I'll comment on it first. It's really cool. It's still a gimmick, in my opinion, and isn't essential to the story, but it does look very nice. Ash, snow, and clouds of steam permeate Hugo's environment, and these all come out particularly well in 3-D.

More important, however, are the acting and design of the film. All top-notch. Relative newcomer Asa Butterfield is Hugo and he's great. Not once did Scorsese succumb to annoying cutesy gags with his child star, and Butterfield carries the emotion of the film expertly. Also great are co-stars Chloe Grace Moretz, who you might know as Hit Girl from "Kick Ass," or the brutal tween vampire from "Let Me In." That dark, violent edge is nowhere to be found in "Hugo," which is good as it would be a shame for her to be typecast so early.

Best of the bunch, however, is Ben Kingsley, who knocks it out of the park as Papa George, a sad, embittered toymaker with a secret past.

The most surprising asset to the cast is Sasha Baren Coen as the Train Inspector. Ostensibly cast as a buffoonish minor villain, Coen brings none of his Borat to the table, instead playing it soft and subtle, and very funny. His story is one of the sweetest in the film.

Scorsese has assembled an amazing cast and, appropriately, has created an environment worthy of their talents. The look of the film is marvelous, from the meticulous and mesmerizing production design to the gauzy, glowing look of the film, enhancing the fairy tale quality of the story.

I was blown away by the beauty of 1920s Paris, the colors rich and warm, as if lit by oil lamps. The clockwork theme carries throughout, and many of the sets have that maze-like Rube Goldberg feel.

Lest you think I'm all gush, "Hugo" isn't perfect. Its biggest drawback is that fairy tale feel which gives the screenwriters license to present large chunks of exposition, as if a character felt the need to explain their entire backstory all at once. This isn't a huge issue, but a nagging one, as is the fact that once or twice the film suddenly turns into a documentary on the history of cinema. Not that it wasn't interesting, but the transition was a little ham-handed.

These are minor issues, however, and don't change my opinion one whit that "Hugo" is one the very best films I've seen all year. With bigger, louder, and better publicized films out there this holiday season, it would be possible to miss "Hugo." Indeed, the showing I attended only had four other attendees. Don't miss it. Almost any other family film I've seen this year would be just a good on video, but "Hugo" demands to be seen on the big screen.

Grade: A

"Hugo" is rated PG for mild scares.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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