Hugo, based on Brian Selznik’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is director Martin Scorsese’s first ever 3D film, and promises to be something truly special. The film is the story of Hugo, a young boy who has lost his family and home, and lives in the walls of a Paris train station. By day, Hugo winds and maintains the clocks of the station, but by night he works to unlock a secret left to him by his father. Little does Hugo realise that this secret will transform and those around him, and reveal a safe and loving place he can call home.
Adapting a beloved book into a film is always a contentious project, but the good news is that Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Brian Selznik’s novel is a loving one. Selznik’s book lends itself to the screen – half graphic novel, half prose with a whole lot of love for cinema thrown in. It makes a strange sort of sense that Martin Scorsese would leave behind his days of dark and violent streets to make a foray into 3D films aimed at children.
Asa Butterfield plays Hugo, a young boy who is left to fend for himself. This is not Butterfield’s first screen role, but it is the first time that he is given the burden of carrying the story, and he does well. Hugo appears stiff and wooden at the start of the film, but it becomes clear that this is not due to lack of skill on the actor’s behalf, but a choice made by the director; Hugo is a lonely child and his social interactions are tinged with fear. As the character opens up, so does the actor. Chloe Grace Moretz has proven that she has a great range for such a young actor, and is the bubbly, outgoing opposite to Hugo.
The actors, as with many children’s films, are support to the young actors. Sasha Baron Cohen provides much of the humour in the film, as the station attendant in a Paris train station. He comes off as the enemy for much of the film, but it becomes clear that he is a man driven to distraction by the urchin children in the city. Ben Kingsley plays Georges, the man whose mystery becomes entangled with Hugo and his father’s. Kingsley goes through a similar character arc as Hugo – wary and scared to open and loving.
Hugo is a love letter to Paris and early cinema. The story switches from a mystery left behind by Hugo’s father, to the mystery of a living man who has turned away from his past. Scorsese masterfully uses footage from the Lumiere Brothers to recreate the wonder of cinema felt by the first audiences, and masterfully segues into recreating footage from Georges Méliès films in the most loving and faithful manner.
This love of cinema and the experience of early movie goers is the reason that the book works so well, and almost begged to be made into a film. It is also the reason that Martin Scorsese was the right choice as director. Scorsese has always appeared to love the medium, and this film reminds the audience of the magic of early cinema. The choice to use 3D was an interesting one; a story about the emergence of cinema told in the most up to date format to hand. The problem is, that once again, the technology is not used properly. Yes, 3D adds a deeper look to the depth of field, but it is ultimately redundant. This story did not need 3D in order to be told, but it is hard to deny the notion that this use is film coming full circle.
Hugo works as a mystery thriller for the kids, but is filled with nostalgia; for the mystery of early cinema, the excitement of the new medium and the wonderful cameos – including a startled James Joyce. This adds a layer to the film that only the adults in the audience will understand.
The film is a faithful adaptation of a beautiful book. Hugo captures the look and feel of the book, while becoming it’s own entity. The setting of the story is just perfect; the birthplace of cinema as we know it, it is just a shame that 3D is not needed for the film, and sometimes even distracts. That said, however, Hugo is the Christmas movie of 2011; it reminds the audience of the magic around us and the possibility of a truly happy ending.