Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
…and a little child shall lead them.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) had lived and at times assisted his widower father (Jude Law) who had a clock shop and also worked at a museum repairing mechanical devices and clocks. When the man died in a fire, the alcoholic uncl, who was the clock winder at the train station, took the boy, gave him a bed in the chamber that held the works of the huge tower clock, withdrew him from school, and taught him how to maintain the various large clocks. Then the uncle disappeared on a drinking binge, leaving the boy to fend for himself. The only thing Hugo had of his father’s was an automaton he had been trying to get to work.
Hugo survives by stealing bread rolls and fruit from a café and vendors who sell to the crowds that pass through the station. He has to be careful because the vigilant station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) is on the lookout for him. There are several madcap chases with the Inspector and his dog almost catching the elusive boy several times. Not knowing that the uncle is missing, he does not suspect that it is the boy who keeps the clocks running.
Hugo runs afoul a toy repairman and salesman named Georges (Ben Kingsley) when the old man grabs him as he is trying to steal a mechanical mouse. Forced by the angry proprietor to empty his pockets, the boy reveals that he has also taken a number of springs and gears. What we know but Georges does not is that the boy has been attempting to repair the automaton as a way to connect with his father. He is especially intrigued by the lock in the chest of the automaton with its heartshaped hole. Only after meeting and befriending Georges’s ward Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), a girl about Hugo’s age, does he find the key, not only to the lock and the secret of the automaton, but also to the secret of Georges as well.
The old man turns out to be the great pioneer of film special effects Georges Melies. Having gone bankrupt and losing his film studio (the first one in history), the once famous filmmaker—creator of over 500 films—had become embittered and was reduced to selling and repairing toys at the shop in the station. Now we know the reason why Scorcese was drawn to the movie. Keenly interested in film history and preservation, the master director can share with us clips from Melies and other silent filmmakers—for instance, there is a clip from The General in which Buster Keaton sitting on the driving rod of a steam engine and then being lifted up when the engine starts up; and there is a shot of the famous Babylonia set from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. Most extensive of all is the famous scene from Safety Last. We see this through the eyes of the children, Hugo sneaking Isabella into a theater after she tells him that her father has never allowed her to see a movie. Comedian Harold Lloyd is stuck out on a ledge high above a city street, and then slipping, he dangles from the minute hand of a huge clock. Later on homage is paid to this classic scene when Hugo, being pursued again by the Inspector and his dog, rushes up the stairs of the clock tower, climbs through the face of the giant clock, slips and grabs onto the minute hand of the clock. He hangs there in great peril until the Inspector gives up the search and leaves.
In flashbacks we see the younger George Melies in the late 1890s and early 1900s present at the first public showing of a film by the the Lumiere brothers’ 1897 Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. The audience was so mesmerized by the spectacle of pictures that move that they rose up in fright as the steam engine seemed to be heading right for them. Already a successful magician, Melies was so taken with this new magic that he built his own camera and began making films, He discovered he could work screen magic by special effects such as the stop-camera effect in which a woman appears to disappear, replaced by other objects, and the first sci-fi/fantasy film, the comical A Trip to the Moon. And through the film historian Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), Scorcese even gets in a plug for his favorite cause of film preservation. Film buffs will love the recreation of film history, but the film works for families because of the well-rounded characters and delightful plot.
We feel for the grieving and lonely boy struggling to survive—indeed, striving as he tells Isabella, to discover his purpose in life, which after learning of Georges’ place in film history, he now understands. It is a neat plot device to pair Hugo’s attempt to repair the automaton with the repairing of a broken man. The young actors are convincing in their parts, and are wonderfully supported by the adult cast. There are a few subplots, such as the shy Inspector’s desire to make the acquantance of the flower girl, and an old man and woman who might have paired off but for the snappiness of the woman’s dog. The audience loved his solution to the problem.
Although I suspect that Scorcese would prefer to have been able to create a film biography of the great originator of his profession instead of encasing it within a tale for young people, he does not stint on the story of Hugo and his friends. Every scene is shot with passion and enthusiasm, designed to lead us to share his love for the movies. The camerwork is thrilling as we swoosh the crowds in one long shot, and the settings—the huge train station, a public library, the giant gears, shafts and workings of the tower clock, and the vistas of Paris, all enhanced by 3-D. Scorcese had a big budget and used it well to recreate the details of the early 20th century. This is one film that you really should see in 3 D, Scorcese using the device better than anyone since James Cameron in Avatar. Martin Scorcese has given the world something to be thankful for during this season of turkey and football. Hugo is the kind of film that makes going to the movies (and writing about them) the joyful experience that Georges Melies and talented filmmakers since have intended it to be. A treat for the entire family!