Watching Hugo, I could definitely see why Martin Scorsese wanted to make this movie. I could also see why, if anyone but Martin Scorsese had made it, it might not have ended up as good as it is. I mean, no offense to the lovers of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, but there are a few wonky issues with the storytelling here that came right up to edge of bothering me, but were always immediately forgiven thanks to Scorsese’s fantastic visual sense, a slew of excellent performances, and an “ode to loving cinema” message that I could definitely get behind.

Twitchy-faced Asa Butterfield stars as Hugo, a young boy who, in post-WWI France, finds himself living in the bowels of a massive train station with his drunk uncle following the tragic death of his father (mom died quite some time before, we infer). Hugo and his father had been working on repairing a rusty old discarded automaton that dad found in the trash at the museum he worked at, and now the automaton remains Hugo’s only real link to past happier times, and he is obsessed with finally finishing the work, which he believes may unlock a message from his father. To accomplish this, he has taken to stealing the pieces he needs from the toy-shop of a grumpy old man named Georges (Ben Kingsley). One day Georges manages to catch Hugo in the act, and when he discovers Hugo’s father’s notebook, filled with drawings of the automaton, he inexplicably fills with rage and refuses to give it back, eventually making Hugo work for him in the shop under the promise that he might get the notebook back if he does a good job. Meanwhile, Hugo strikes up a friendship with Georges’ young goddaughter Isabel (Chloe Grace Moretz), a friendship that takes an unexpected turn when he discovers her necklace contains the heart-shaped key he has long been searching for, the final piece to finally turning on the automaton. But why does Isabel have this key, and just what is Georges’ connection to the automaton?

The movie has been out long enough now that I don’t think I’m spoiling anything saying that it is eventually revealed that Georges is actually the Georges Mélies, the famous filmmaker who almost single-handedly pioneered the art of cinematic special effects. Turns out Mélies built the automaton, too, but for some reason abandoned both it and his film-making passion, before settling into his new life as a simple toy-shop owner. It’s obvious that, for some reason, Mélies doesn’t want to revisit the painful memories of his past, but Hugo and Isabel take it upon themselves to discover more of his past and try to learn the secret behind his current sad lot in life.

There are essentially two stories/films at play here – one is the more adventure driven tale of the young boy living in the walls of a train station, yearning to unlock the mysteries of an old automaton while at the same time avoiding the grasp of the crippled station inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen), who has his sights set on catching Hugo and sending him to the orphanage. This is the half of the film that I think most kids will enjoy, as it feels like classic family film material. The other half is the true story of Georges Mélies, and his rise to fame, decline into obscurity, and eventual rediscovery. Apart from a few dramatic flourishes, Hugo more-or-less presents Mélies’ tale as it really happened, weaving it into Hugo’s story. I think the stuff about Mélies appeals much more to an older audience who shares the sort of love of cinema that Scorsese is so known for. I can’t really imagine young audiences being all that engaged by the more historical passages here, and I also think the link between the two stories is a somewhat tenuous one. There’s a lot of talk about Hugo hoping for a message from his dead father, and the film tries to pass off his discovery of Mélies and his helping the man regain his passion as the inevitable conclusion of that destiny. But it feels kind of odd and unrelated – we don’t really know enough about Hugo’s dad (who appears only in a couple brief scenes, played by Jude Law) to really feel like he would be all that moved by what Hugo is doing (there IS a mention of how he loved taking Hugo to the movies, but that’s about it). I suppose revealing some heretofore unknown connection between Hugo’s dad and Mélies or film in general might have felt incredibly heavy-handed, but as is it just feels like one story ends at about the half-way point of the movie, and a completely different one begins.

There are a few other slight story issues I had, such as an unnecessary subplot regarding Cohen’s character and a cute flower girl played by Emily Mortimer (it’s not a bad subplot, and it does humanize the inspector character, but it still feels really out of place). I also couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the scene when Hugo and Isabel go to the library to read up on Mélies, and instantly just happen to bump into the author of the book they are reading, who also just happens to be a die-hard Mélies fan that not only once met the man, but also keeps an extensive collection of Mélies memorabilia, including a thought-lost print of one of his films. Well, isn’t that convenient. But, honestly, I find myself far more forgiving of such obvious story cheats in kids movies (maybe that’s unfair, but I just do); plus, the author in question is played by the awesome Michael Stuhlbarg, and since I’m always happy to see him onscreen I can’t complain too much.

I also don’t want to get into a complaining mode because, really, the majority of this movie is quite excellent. As I mentioned before, Scorsese’s always terrific visual sense is even more impressive here, as he is allowed to go even more stylistic thanks to the material’s slight fantasy leanings. This is one of the most beautiful looking films I have watched in quite some time, and although I was viewing it in regular 2D as opposed to the 3D in which it was filmed, Scorsese’s compositions are so strong that I could still feel that extra level of depth in a number of scenes. Meanwhile, the performances are great across the board (besides the actors I already mentioned, Ray Winstone and Christopher Lee also make brief but appreciated appearances), and the film’s humor is actually funny without sinking into that sort of typical family film dumb comedy that only appeals to the youngest viewers.

The thing I want to make clear is that although the two stories at play here never really meshed together as much as I would have liked, they are both equally well-done and interesting, and the movie as a whole is quite lovely as a result. I think there’s something to be said for sucking young audiences in with a Dickensian adventure tale featuring a young hero, and then kind of tricking them into also receiving an important lesson in film history and appreciation of its legends. A straight-forward Mélies biopic might have been a good film, too, especially if also directed by Scorsese, but it almost certainly wouldn’t have been as much fun as this is. Hugo is that rare live-action family film that actually does have something to appeal to audience members of every age. Some people might still be surprised that Scorsese made a family movie (although anyone who has paid attention to what he has to say over the years shouldn’t have been, since it’s obvious he is open to making any kind of movie), but I don’t think anyone should be surprised he made one this good.

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