Hugo More Than a Film History Lesson
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- Updated Apr 30, 2013
DVD Release Date: February 28, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: November 23, 2011
Rating: PG (for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking)
Genre: Drama, Family, Fantasy
Run Time: 127 min.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Actors: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Helen McCrory, Sacha Baron Cohen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee
When the darkness turns to light, it can be a glorious thing. David Lynch, director of some of the thematically darkest films of the last few decades (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart), turned in one of his best films in 1999 with The Straight Story, a G-rated tale of family ties and heartland values. Now Martin Scorsese, best known for violent, R-rated films like Goodfellas and Taxi Driver, has temporarily handed in his gangster card and made the PG-rated charmer Hugo. It’s a 3D lesson in discovering one’s purpose in life and in finding healing through personal connections. It’s also a cautionary tale about the early days of filmmaking, and it’s one of the year’s best family movies.
The setting is a 1930s Paris train station, where Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield, Nanny McPhee Returns) keeps the clocks running all by himself. His father (Jude Law, Contagion), who taught Hugo about gears and mechanics, has perished in a fiery accident, leaving Hugo to a harsh life with his alcoholic uncle (Ray Winstone, Rango). But the uncle, who had been in charge of the clocks at the train station, has disappeared, leaving Hugo to carry on his work.
Fearing he’ll be tossed into an orphanage, Hugo keeps a low profile. He spends his days in the upper reaches of the train station, caring for the clocks. He descends to the main level only to snatch something to eat from one of the station’s food vendors, but he manages to raise the suspicions of the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa). In quieter moments, he remembers his father and ponders a device his dad left behind: an inert automaton that needs a heart-shaped key to operate.
A run-in with George (Ben Kingsley, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time), a local toy-seller, leads to Hugo’s friendship with Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz, Diary of a Wimpy Kid), George’s goddaughter. Together, they unlock Hugo’s automaton and learn more about George, his wife (Helen McCrory, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2) and the role George played in the advent of moving pictures.
Hugo ends as an engaging film-history lesson for both kids and adults, but it also taps into deeper human emotions and needs along the way.
“I wonder what my purpose is,” Isabelle says to Hugo, who shares the same concerns about his place in this world. He’s an expert on mechanics and clockworks who knows “machines never have any extra parts,” but he’s finding that his own life purpose is a more difficult puzzle to solve.
“I figured I had to be here for some reason. And you have to be here for some reason, too,” he tells Isabelle. The movie’s answer boils down to helping others recover their dignity by remembering their own special purpose.
In the view of one key character, Hugo sees a “broken machine” and fixes it. It’s a moving moment of human healing, a big bow on this gift of a film. Presented in rich 3D—the best use of the technology since Robert Zemeckis’ 3D version of A Christmas Carol (2009)—Hugo looks remarkably vivid and layered, running the gamut from lush snowfalls to out-of-control trains and magical cityscapes. If it’s not a breakthrough on par with the early films to which it pays tribute, it’s a showcase for a beleaguered technology that, when in the hands of excellent filmmakers like James Cameron (Avatar), Zemeckis or Scorsese, can be a marvel.
Film-history buffs are almost sure to fall in love with Hugo, but the film is no dry academic exercise. It’s a tribute to movies that has the power to captivate younger viewers without resorting to relentless action and crude jokes. It neither caters to short attention spans nor taxes viewers’ patience. Instead, it richly rewards its audience with an old-fashioned story filled with imagination.
Hugo is a family film best enjoyed on a big screen in 3D. See it with your family, or on your own, so you can add it to the memories of movie magic you’ll one day pass along to future generations.
- Language/Profanity: None.
- Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Hugo’s uncle smokes and is said to be a drunk; a camera operator drinks from a flask.
- Sex/Nudity: The station inspector asks a man when the last time was that he “had relations” with a woman and later has a conversation alluding to the possibility of a pregnancy; Isabelle kisses Hugo on the cheek.
- Violence/Crime: Hugo is caught stealing; a man glimpses an approaching fireball that will consume him; dog bites man; the station inspector locks boys up in a cage, or jail; Hugo and Isabelle sneak into a movie theater and are thrown out by an usher; Hugo angrily breaks things; in a frightening dream, Hugo turns into an automaton; war footage and a painting of a dead soldier; Hugo climbs onto an outdoor clock face and hangs from the clock’s hands; a runaway train.
Religion/Morals: Hugo is called a reprobate.
Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at email@example.com.