Hugo (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Martin Scorsese
viewed: 11/26/2011 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

When I first read that Martin Scorsese was due to direct an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, I was intrigued.  I had read Selznick’s book with the kids a couple of years back and its mixture of chapter book narrative mixed with lovely illustrations by the author that draw from history and cinema, breaking at times from the written word to depict the story in images.  The story of the book revolves around a mystery of a wonderful automaton that draws pictures and the re-discovery of the early cinema master Georges Méliès.  The book’s combination of story, re-discovery, and early cinema seemed ripe for a film director who is as much historian as director in many ways.

And that seems to be the way that Scorsese approached the film himself.  Shooting for the first time in 3-D, Scorsese employs one of the most modern of contemporary tools of movie magic, this “depth of field” third dimension, to explore the earliest magician of the cinema, Méliès (with tips of the hat to a number of other early masters).

It’s a beautifully-imagined film, with complex tracking shots through the mechanisms of the clockwork inside a Paris train station, which the orphaned Hugo keeps working, keeping him from being discovered and turned in to an orphanage.  His tutelage from his father and uncle, clock-makers and fixers both, leads him to try to fix the amazing automaton that his father rescued from a museum where it languished in an attic.  Hugo’s father is killed in a fire, leaving him with his besotted uncle (before he disappears), and leaving Hugo with the passion to repair the man-machine to unlock its mystery,

In doing so, he steals for his food, steals for his automaton (spare parts from a toy shop in the station), tracked by the station policeman, played by Sacha Baron Cohen.  He’s caught by the wily old toy shop keeper, (Ben Kingsley) who makes him pay off his thefts by working for him and is befriended by the keeper’s goddaughter, played by Chloë Grace Moretz.

I wouldn’t want to spoil the “mystery” of the story for you, though it may become obvious. The film didn’t hold surprises for us since we’d read the book, though I recall not really knowing where the whole thing was going when we read it initially, so I’ll try to be circumspect.

The film is good, quite lovely, really.  Well-cast, well-acted, well-shot, it still never reached any point of magic or emotion or thrill or anything that one would hope for in the best of children’s movies.  Potentially, it’s over-long at over 2 hours.  Potentially, it’s my own perspective on the content.  I know the story.  I know the images.  I read somewhere that one critic felt that it turned into a bit of a film history lesson.

The thing is is that Georges Méliès, as well as much early cinema, is a secret waiting to be discovered by most people.  Between Méliès and the Lumière brothers, cinema’s soul was invented, the magic and the realism, the fantasy and the verity.  And the Silent era becomes ever further removed in history as time moves forward.  Scorsese delights in illuminating the work of Méliès, pressing his mystical images upon us with the wonder that many of us beheld (behold) when we see them.  And it’s great that between Selznick’s book and Scorsese’s film that the story of this lost art is brought forward to so many more.

Scorsese’s film doesn’t have the immediacy or energy of his most successful works.  In many ways, his more recent films (that I’ve seen), are very self-conscious affairs, each one with a level of self-importance, an attempt at a “major” film, a major commentary on genre or history by a super-intelligent, very accomplished director.  But this level of depth of perception (perhaps metaphorically similar to the extraneous third dimensional depth of field) loses the vigor and energy that sparks the truest magic in cinema, in his own or in the films that he cites and admires.

This is only to say that Hugo is a very good film, not a great one.  A film with a good story that opens up to a history of cinema, made with great love and admiration.  Just not cinema magic in and of itself.  And the kids felt somewhat similarly.  They liked it.  Clara didn’t remember the story from reading it.  She may have reason to re-visit the book.  And we will have reason to revisit Méliès as well.

It struck me funny that this was their first Scorsese film.  It’s certainly the only children’s film that he’s ever made.

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