Hugo began life as a graphic novel, and the intricate visual detail in director Martin Scorsese’s first foray into the 3D wonderland reflects this. Quite simply, Hugo is a gorgeous thing to look at. Scorsese has thrown himself into the creation of a train station in 1920s Paris with full passion and commitment. Happily, there’s a story and a half-dozen interesting characters, too.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a lonely, grubby, ingenious little boy we follow around the station. He maintains the station’s clocks, yet must steal food (to live) from the station shops and mechanical toys (for a secret project) from an old man’s (Ben Kingsley) kiosk. In flashback, we learn Hugo’s sad story. What is revealed much more slowly is how his story ties in with the old man’s.
As the mystery is slowly revealed—probably too slowly for younger kids—the film spends a lot of time with the interesting characters around the station. There’s the curious, intrepid young girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) who befriends Hugo and helps him on his quest; the kindly bookseller (Christopher Lee) she introduces to Hugo; Hugo’s nemesis, the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who longs to pack the kid off to an orphanage; and a kindly flower seller (Emily Mortimer).
Butterfield, Kingsley and Moretz are very good; Cohen is hilarious and, unusually, poignant. These are delightful characters to spend two hours with, though they’d be even more delightful if they were in a film that was an hour and 40 minutes long, if you get my drift.
As the plot starts coming together, we learn that the old man is actually one of the great pioneers of the cinema. Which takes the Hugo in another interesting direction.
Scorsese takes thorough delight in using all the tech tools of digital cinema to re-create the wonders of the mechanical age. The sequences showing Hugo maintaining the elaborate network of station clocks is ingenious and amazing. It’s almost as if the making of Hugo were a metaphor for the obligations and processes of film preservation.
Clever fellow, that Scorsese.