I went into Martin Scorsese’s new film Hugo feeling skeptical, in spite of the glowing notices it’s been receiving—having seen the trailer, I worried that it would be two hours of Sacha Baron Cohen chasing our hero through the Paris Metro station. I was also fearful of what might be a kind of visual-effects assault in the Pirates of the Caribbean/Chronicles of Narnia vein, an adventure story that constantly throws things at the audience in hopes of keeping its attention. I should have had more faith in Scorsese; he’s made his share of disappointing films, but in Hugo his hand is steady and his touch is light. Even with its elaborate visual effects and roving camerawork, it doesn’t feel heavy or spastic in the way that many recent special-effects-packed family films do. Scorsese gives us moments to breathe, to think, to pay attention to characters, objects, and images; he’s not always waving something in our faces. Even while the pace is energetic and upbeat, Scorsese’s tone is serene, relaxed, and confident. It’s the work of a master filmmaker—even if it’s not of the stature of Raging Bull or Taxi Driver.
As many have pointed out, Hugo seems like a departure for Scorsese: a whimsical children’s film about an orphan (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the Gothic rafters of the Paris Metro, maintaining the station clocks and stealing the odd croissant, a kind of combination of Quasimodo, Oliver Twist, and Antoine Doinel. The film is not in the tradition of Scorsese’s De Niro films, to be sure. Rather, it’s in the tradition of his films about cinema, such as The Aviator (2004) and his brilliant documentaries A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies and My Voyage to Italy. These are works by Scorsese the film fan and historian, the man who spent his boyhood sneaking off to the movies and who has devoted much of his adult career to restoring and preserving them. Hugo is, on one level, a cinema history primer—the story of the birth of the movies as told to children.
The early cinema pioneer Georges Melies (played by Ben Kingsley) and his silent classic A Trip to the Moon (1902) make up the objects at the center of Scorsese’s history lesson. Because the subject is a remarkable one and Scorsese is a brilliantly entertaining teacher, the lesson is thrilling rather than dull. It’s natural for Scorsese to fixate on Melies as opposed to, say, the Lumiere brothers; whereas the Lumiere brothers began a cinematic tradition of realism and documentary, Melies has long been treated as the father of cinematic fantasy and wizardry, of films as dreams, and he’s been “claimed” by cinema’s anti-realists (into which category Scorsese himself falls). Scorsese sees in Melies the essence of cinema’s ability to use machines to make our dreams visible, as if by magic. Like the early cinematic technologies of the fin de siecle—and like the clocks, wind-up toys, and mechanical devices that populate its world—Hugo is ingeniously devised entertainment.