Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives between the spaces of the Montparnasse Train Station in Paris. He's an orphan - his mother died when he was very young, and his father (Jude Law), a maker of clocks, died in a fire, but not before teaching Hugo about the artistry of clockwork and leaving him an enigmatic metal man that Hugo's father called an Automaton. Hugo is certain that before he died his father left him a message in the Automaton, and so when he's not fine tuning the clocks in the train station - a job he is given by his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone) - he's searching for pieces to add to the Automaton to one day get it to work, and trying to stay out of sight of the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) who will happily take Hugo to the orphanage if he ever catches him.
This forces Hugo to cross paths with Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), an old man with a toy shop in the station. After getting caught stealing parts for the Automaton, Hugo is forced to surrender his father's journal to Méliès, who promises Hugo that he will take the book home and destroy it. Distraught, Hugo seeks solace in the bowels of the station, desperate to escape what has become of his life. Little does he know that the Automaton will take him on a journey of mystery, wonder, and magic - just who is that old man at the toy shop anyway? Even his goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) doesn't really know why Georges is so sad all the time, and reluctant to revisit the past. But once, that old man did magic, and changed the world. Hugo and Isabelle will discover that magic, and the gift of Georges' power.
For people like me, we all know what that magic is, but for those who don't, HUGO is a magical introduction to why we love film so very much. It's Martin Scorsese's love letter to the power of cinema, and although it's quite unlike any film he's ever made, it's also undeniably a Scorsese film. Scorsese's films have such joy and passion in them, even when he's documenting evil men and evil deeds like in GOODFELLAS or TAXI DRIVER. HUGO is playful, charming, and an ode to a cinema that just doesn't exist anymore.
It's interesting to me that both HUGO and THE MUPPETS are being released the same weekend - both are full of optimism and magic, but while THE MUPPETS is probably more accessible to general audiences, HUGO is very much walking the same ground. It's a film about bringing back the joy of cinema to audiences that might be too jaded to appreciate them. Back in the early days of film, audiences were startled at a film of a train leaving a station, so much so that they jumped out of the way when the train came close to the screen. It's no accident that HUGO is made in 3D - this might be the first film that uses 3D as a thematic conceit instead of just trickery and effects. Like the early cinema of yore, HUGO wants to immerse the audience in an experience, and show us things we haven't really seen before.
All the performances are top notch, especially Ben Kingsley, as a haunted man who just wants to share his dreams with the rest of the world, only to have them snatched away from him. Georges is broken by life, and it takes two children to show him what once was beautiful. Sacha Baron Cohen seems to be channeling Peter Sellers with his work here, but not in the obvious ways that you may think. Asa Butterfield is terrific as Hugo - it's quite a difficult task to carry a film like this and he does so very well. Moretz just continues to do good work in her films, and HUGO is no exception.
If I'm talking around the film's primary "twist" - and it's not really a twist, if you've followed film history - it's because much of the joys of HUGO are best discovered. The film is amazingly shot, using 3D to the best of its capabilities - the camera swoops and moves through the crowd with a purpose, and some of the composition of the shots are just jawdroppingly good. Thelma Schoonmaker proves yet again why she's one of the best editors in the business, and Howard Shore's score is powerful but not overpowering - it's some of his best work, and I'm counting THE LORD OF THE RINGS films in that assessment.
And as far as Martin Scorsese goes, he's playing here and it feels like a release for him, and the result is something we've never really seen from him before. Whimsy is an elusive emotion to capture onscreen. Try too hard, and it feels forced; try too light and it goes over the heads of the audience. HUGO is whimsical in the best way that great films can be. It's a statement on the power of what movies can do, but it's more than that - it's about the power of art to transform, to free, and to heal. Once that power gets inside of you, for good or ill, it controls your life, and you have to follow it down to wherever it leads. To deny that power is to punish yourself, and HUGO is an affirmation to the magic of great movies.