Martin Scorsese delivers a dazzling love letter to film, imagination and dreams with 2011’s Hugo. The film was the most nominated picture at the Academy Awards and took home a number of awards, including for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Visual Effects. It is one of the best films of 2011.
Hugo is based on Brian Selznick’s historical fiction book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The book won the 2008 Caldecott Medal, the first novel to do so, and has as its inspiration the legacy of French filmmaker Georges Méliès. Scorsese’s clear passion for film makes the project a perfect fit and his nose for movie history really comes through in the finer details.
Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphaned boy living and working maintaining the clocks in the Gare Montparnasse railway station in Paris. His father (Jude Law) tragically died, but not before leaving Hugo with a gift for curiosity and an incredible knack for fixing machines. Hugo lives between the walls at the railway station and watches the curious activities of various characters.
Hugo has been working on putting together an automaton with a pen. Convinced that the automaton carries a message from his father, Hugo steals mechanical parts from a toymaker (Ben Kingsley). When the message is eventually revealed, Hugo, together with his new friend Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), tries to unravel a mystery that is deeper than possibly imagined.
Hugo is a visually stunning picture. It is Scorsese’s first work in 3D and his use of the medium is important in that he dedicates his picture to the innovation of dreams and illusions through film. In that Méliès brought visions to life, so does Scorsese with snaking shots of clock machineries and the hustle and bustle of the train station.
Scorsese’s film radiantly serves as entertainment for families because of the brilliance of the adventures, but it’s also extraordinary stuff for serious movie buffs. Scorsese makes several points as to the necessity of film preservation, but he stops short of lamenting a lost art. He plugs his motivation onward, using contemporary innovation to illustrate just how delighted Auguste and Louis Lumière might be over CGI and 3D. In that regard, Hugo is a celebration.
If there is any expression of sadness to be found in Hugo, it’s in the idea of relinquishing imagination. Méliès gives up on his dream because people have tired of such trifles as dreaming, choosing taciturn authenticity over what can be imagined. He destroys his legacy and locks himself away in a new life, choosing to forget the possibilities and dissolve. Hugo allows him to rediscover the dream and its importance, to recognize that he hasn’t been forgotten and can be remembered again and again.
Art, like all things, moves on and on. Films, music, television, and other creative channels keep pushing forward and breaking new boundaries of possibility, even if our all-too-critical culture grumbles to a far greater degree. Our society almost seems to, at times, abandon fancy in favour of deeply-held scorn. Perhaps we, too, have tired of our dreams. With Hugo, Scorsese gracefully reminds us that doing so is a great tragedy.