It’s been quite some time since my last review but never fear there are plenty on the way and this one for that rarest of things, a U certificate film directed by Martin Scorsese would have been posted sooner had I not been struck down by a very nasty case of food poisoning the night after watching it. Last time I take a risk with a ham sandwich. Anyway I’m still plugging away with Skyward Sword and have nearly finished re-reading Mattimeo not to mention my first decent paycheque in a while has given me justification to buy a trio of animated films on DVD so you can expect reviews for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Secret of Kells and Coraline in the not too distant future. For now it’s time to look at a family film that celebrates the magic of old cinema from a director best known for his hard-hitting gangster movies.
Martin Scorsese certainly grabbed people’s attention by going so clearly against type and making a film you can take the kids to see (rather like Robert Rodriguez did with SPY Kids) but I’m very glad he did because Hugo is rather delightful. Asa Butterfield plays the titular Hugo Cabret, the orphaned son of a clockmaker (Jude Law) brought by his reprobate uncle (Ray Winston) to work maintaining the clocks of a Parisian railway station. With his uncle long since disappeared Hugo lives in secrecy in hidden places behind the station’s many clocks, stealing food to survive, dodging an orphan-hunting station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and working hard to repair a broken automaton bequeathed to him by his father.
One thing Hugo is not is an adventure film, something that may come as a surprise to anyone who has seen the trailers. It’s more of a mystery film that focuses on Hugo’s attempts to find meaning in his life by mending the automaton to reveal its secrets. Sure there are adventurous moments, including a couple of comical chase sequences but this is much more about character and setting than excitement. And the setting is a memorable one presenting the period Parisian station as the kind of magically enticing semi-steampunk place that reminds you of the most enchanting kid’s stories you loved when you were little. There’s a sense of community about it that reminds me of Spielberg’s The Terminal, a film many like to mock but I rather enjoyed but the slightly sentimental presentation of a fairytale centre for transport works far better here. It’s best illustrated by the burgeoning friendship between two minor characters played by Richard Griffiths and Francis de la Tour that is inhibited by the latter’s overprotective dog.
The characters are uniformly memorable thanks in no small part to the top-notch cast, not least of which is Ben Kingsley’s cruel and enigmatic toy seller. His goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) takes pity on Hugo and defies the embittered old man to help him achieve his aims with the assistance of Christopher Lee’s sweet bookseller. Only Sacha Baron Cohen’s station inspector doesn’t quite hit the spot, looking exactly like Arthur Bostrom in Allo Allo and affecting an unrecognisable accent. Still his character hides more depth the child-catcher exterior suggests. The two child leads are both fabulous, effortlessly charming with every line they deliver, conveying character and emotion with real skill, the kind of young actors you wish they could have found for the Harry Potter films.
It’s by no means a perfect film, it takes a long time to really get anywhere with the plot as charming as the first hour is it never feels like it quite knows what it wants to be until it settles on a mystery about Georges Méliès, the real world director of, amongst many others, A Trip to the Moon, the film that features that famous image of a rocket hitting the man in the moon in the eye, credited as the first ever science-fiction film. This is where the film finds its emotional grounding as it remembers with unchecked fondness the magic of early cinema. Anyone that shares that sentiment will be enchanted but it’s possible that youngsters that might lack the knowledge to appreciate the direction the plot takes this way might be lost.
It’s this affection for the mechanics of classic cinema that justifies the presence of 3D which is probably the best I’ve seen in a live-action film (my buddy Ryan who watched the film with me didn’t agree on this point, indeed he didn’t rate the film much at all). The opening shot of the camera swooping down over Paris into the station between two platforms is the highpoint that the film never reaches again but the visual presentation fits with the effect well. It’s still not a patch in the 3D in Tangled.
I think this one might be divisive. I found it reverentially magical but Ryan didn’t/ It felt to me like a particularly Chistmassy film and I think it won’t have any trouble finding its audience but not everybody will be convinced by the slow pace and general lack of excitement. I can’t say I enjoyed it as much as Super 8 but still thought it was great even if I will probably forever associate it with horrendous food poisoning.
It doesn’t necessarily do what you expect and there are faults to be sure but excellent characterisation and performances and a world full of intriguing mystery combine to give the reverential story the right amount of charm.