There is no other living director better equipped to tackle the subject of the importance of film than Martin Scorsese. In his latest opus, Hugo, Scorsese reiterates both visually and verbally how much less full of hope we would all be without the dreams and escapes that films provide their audience with.
Based on the book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, screenwriter John Logan (who also adapted The Aviator and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, making him no stranger to collaborations with Scorsese and Johnny Depp, a producer of Hugo via his production company Infinitum Nihil) interweaves the sad tale of Hugo adeptly with the sad tale of Georges Méliès (played by the ever so surly Ben Kingsley). With regard to Méliès, the film is highly accurate in terms of the timeline of events that occurred in the life of the fallen director.
Hugo’s world does not collide with Méliès’ until he loses his father and only parent (in a cameo-like appearance from Jude Law) to the flames of a fire. Immediately taken in by his gruff and drunken uncle, Claude Cabret (Ray Winstone), Hugo inhabits the world of time in a literal and figurative sense by running the clocks at the train station. As soon as his uncle disappears to presumably pursue his inebriated escapades, Hugo begins stealing parts from the toy stand in the station so that he can continue the work his father started on an automaton he found in the museum where he worked.
When Méliès discovers Hugo stealing, he takes the boy’s notebook, featuring detailed drawings and notes about the automaton. Hugo’s only hope of getting it back is through the compassion of Méliès’ goddaughter/adopted daughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), who takes an instant liking to the lonesome orphan. As Hugo grows to trust Isabelle, he reveals the automaton to her (though largely in part because she wears a necklace with a heart-shaped key that will finally make the machine work). Of the machine, Isabelle notes, ”It looks sad.” Hugo replies, “I think it’s just waiting… To work. To do what it’s supposed to.” And so the entire theme of the movie is laid out: We all have some purpose, and when we aren’t given the chance to carry it out, we basically go crazy.
Once this central theme is showcased, the plot transmutes into Hugo single-handedly rejuvenating Méliès’ enthusiasm for life–regardless of the obstacles Hugo must overcome to do so. One of those obstacles is the Chief Inspector of the train station, Gustav (played by Sacha Baron Cohen, who vaguely resembles Stanley Tucci in this role), a fiendish sort constantly trying to capture orphans and send them off to the orphanage. Then there is the brief hiccup where Hugo is convinced the automaton won’t work at all, lamenting, ”I thought if I could fix it, I wouldn’t feel alone anymore.”
While at times bordering on the trite side, Scorsese always reins it back in with his sinister visual style. It may be a far cry from the grit of Taxi Driver, but Scorsese brings an undeniable edge to a film geared toward the preteen demographic. Not many filmmakers are capable of adroitly toeing that line.