Marty in Wonderland: The Verdict on Martin Scorsese’s 3D Adventure Hugo

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Hugo Cabret
Hugo Cabret and Isabelle with the automaton

The grandmaster of the gangster genre and the cinema of madness is back. He has returned with a project that can in good conscience be described as peculiar and atypical for him. Martin Scorsese’s latest movie, Hugo, is a 3D adaptation of Brian Selznick’s children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

On first glance, this seems like an odd choice. Why would a serious filmmaker like Scorsese, whose movies generally tend to brim over with violence and lunatics, at least in the eyes of the public, tackle something for the kids? In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the director explained that he mainly realized Hugo for his youngest daughter Francesca:

“Having a child later in life – my daughter is about twelve years old now – and growing with her at a later age brought me back to, I think, the initial impulse to make movies, which was the impulse, the inspiration that a child has, the innocence of the storytelling, the open-mindedness. Anything could happen, surreal, real, doesn’t matter. And this was something to get back in touch with. So, we always joke around and say, ‘Make a film your kid can see for once.’ But that wasn’t the only reason for making the picture, but it did help.”[1]

Scorsese is adamant to point out that there was more to his motivation to shoot Hugo than his daughter, and once the movie begins, it becomes clear why and what. Like Hitchcock before him, Scorsese has always admitted that he works from his dreams. The world in his latest outing certainly has that look, not just because of the 3D. Set in and around a Paris train station of the 1930s, it is a very polished, glossy, and almost dreamlike universe.

The film tells the story of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who lives in the walls of that depot and fixes the numerous clocks in the building while hiding from the authorities. A broken automaton that recalls the machine-men from Fritz Lang’s early masterpiece Metropolis is his only connection to his deceased father. While looking for the heart-shaped key to start the device, Hugo meets an eccentric old man, Papa Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) and his adventurous goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz).

The two youngsters continue his search, while sneaking into a film theater, drawing up the clocks, fooling the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), and discovering the early cinema through a book and conversations with Professor Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg). In the process, Hugo finds out that there is a connection between him, his father, the automaton, and the Méliès family. It is not until his search comes closer to the heart of the matter that Papa Georges is willing to remember his past and his significance to the filmmaking world.

In a way, Hugo is Scorsese’s love letter to cinema, and it is obvious why by taking a look at the movie’s main character. Many of his protagonists from past features were surrogates of sorts for the director, outsiders struggling to blend in with the crowd. Henry Hill from GoodFellas, for instance, first admires the gangsters from afar just as Martin, as a boy, once observed the streets from his window in Little Italy. Likewise, the young Dalai Lama in Kundun watches his environment through a telescope from his isolation in the temple.

Hugo Cabret does the same. He hides in the giant clocks, from where he becomes a spectator of everything that goes on in the station, almost as if he were living in a world of his own. A kid living in the early 1930s, he is about twenty years Scorsese’s senior in this regard. Hugo is clever. Although seen as a thief by the grown-ups, he is always one step ahead. Despite being an orphan when the film begins, he shares the director’s childhood experience of going to the theater with his father (Jude Law).

Similarly, he and Isabelle cannot get enough of a book about old movies they discover in the library. The young Scorsese is said to have clipped pictures from such a book because he was so fascinated with the images. When Hugo and Isabelle steal into a moviehouse and he introduces her to the world of motion pictures, she is completely captivated by all that happens on the screen. Not so coincidentally, Scorsese, as a frail and asthmatic boy, spent hours and hours staring at the flickering images in the old theaters of New York City.

Hugo and Isabelle are not the only characters that bear resemblance to the director, however. Méliès with his all but forgotten love for moviemaking is, of course, a natural focalizer for someone like Scorsese. Both create motion picture magic in their own way. As a former illusionist, the real Méliès was one of the pioneers during the early stages of film history, after all. He is therefore a fascinating figure for with such a rich cinematic knowledge as Scorsese’s.

Méliès has a loyal wife, Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory). A former actress in his many works, she has remained at his side even after he abandoned his true vocation. Maybe their relationship is a reflection of the private stability Scorsese longed for during his first four failed marriages and what he has finally found with his fifth spouse Helen Morris. As the director has acknowledged, Hugo is somewhat of a dedication to their daughter Francesca.

Another character with similarities to Scorsese is Tabard, who almost devours old movies and fights for their preservation as the American filmmaker does. In fact, Hugo can be regarded as Scorsese’s attempt to introduce the children of today to the captivating world and the history of cinema – and to raise awareness for one of his pet causes, the preservation of motion picture classics that otherwise would be lost.

Scorsese’s admiration for these old works shines through when he recreates a famous early French film, Arrival Of A Train At La Ciotat, by the Lumière brothers and the original audience’s first reaction to it. Legend has it that the viewers were scared by what they saw on the screen and panicked. The scene is a fine demonstration of why Scorsese likely chose to make Hugo his first film in 3D, for the audience trying to get out of the train’s way remarkably uses the three-dimensional effects.

The Dickensian tale is as much a movie about the adventures of its youthful main character as it is an attempt at a creating a documentary about the history of cinema appropriate for children of all ages. Documentaries on musicians and filmmakers have been Scorsese’s hobbyhorse in the last decade, while his features have become bigger in size and budget. In Hugo, he combines these two elements with stunning visual effects that probably would have made Méliès, their original inventor, proud.

The film is unlike anything Scorsese has ever tried before. It does not contain any of the physical and mental brutality that characterizes his older movies. At the 2012 Oscars, host Billy Crystal quipped that nobody gets whacked in Hugo, surprisingly. Maybe the softer approach is owed to Scorsese’s age and his status as the head of a family as he inches toward his 70th birthday. Screenwriter John Logan, who had worked with the director on The Aviator before, also noticed a change in Scorsese’s behavior during the shoot:

“He was so warm and generous on the set. He’s always thrilling to work with, but there was a little something special about this time. It was like watching a magician in the autumn of his years, really using all his powers to create a magnificent work of magic.”[2]

It seems that the filmmaker has indeed mellowed down a little. On earlier sets, Scorsese is said to have suffered from outbursts of fury. Yet these days, he appears to be more of an elder statesman that shares his grandfatherly wisdom with the rest of the cast and crew. The director has mentioned that the darker topics of his more recent movies, especially Shutter Island, really dragged him down. Maybe he simply wanted to create a more positive work for once.

The happy ending of Hugo is a little corny, of course. Such conclusions usually are. Then again, it is about an almost forgotten wizard and the magic of cinema. Suspension of disbelief must therefore be regarded as a necessity. Children possess it, but the adults watching Hugo probably do not and will complain about Scorsese having become soft. Such a movie is supposed to be Spielberg territory, after all.

In the past, Scorsese had stated several times that he admired his friend Spielberg’s films, but could never see himself in such projects. It seems that, approaching seventy and being the father of a young daughter, he has finally found the key to unlock the world of fairytales for himself. Whether or not this is a progress for such an acclaimed filmmaker is ultimately up to the viewer, but Scorsese should certainly be granted the permission to explore new territories.

Even though it is naturally geared toward the younger audiences, Hugo is more than just a regular children’s picture. With the use of magnificent audiovisual effects, it captures the magic of a moving images pioneer’s tricks that otherwise might have passed by most modern viewers. Méliès is one of the people whose works really introduced the masses to a new medium that has since taken off on a triumphal course.

Does that mean Hugo is perfect? In terms of audiovisuals, there is not really much to complain. It looks and sounds marvelous, so that the five Academy Awards for Best Sound Mix, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Art Direction, and Best Cinematography are well-deserved. Scorsese’s meticulous attention to details during the exposition, however, means that Hugo drags on a little too much in the first hour. The director’s often flawless timing seems to be a bit off and less might have been more here. Combined with the happy ending that some may find too sugary, this detracts from an otherwise splendid film.

[1] Martin Scorsese, in: “Martin Scorsese on ’Hugo’ and His Daughter.” (internet video, playing time 0.54 – 1.28). (retrieved on 14 February, 2012).

[2] John Logan, in: Tim Lammers, “John Logan Q&A: ‘Hugo’ Scribe Talks Oscar Nomination, Scorsese.” Minneapolis Movie Examiner. (retrieved on 21 February, 2012).