Martin Scorsese loves movies. You don’t even have to watch Scorsese’s films to know that he’s as movie mad as they come, it’s part of what defines him as a human being. Where Quentin Tarantino has made himself the king of cinema from 1970 on, Scorsese’s love seems to cover the entirety of cinema. And to enjoy Hugo, his love letter to early cinema, it probably helps to be a little movie mad yourself. Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Chloe Grace Moretz, and Sacha Baron Cohen star in Hugo, and our review of the Blu-ray follows after the jump.
The titular Hugo is Butterfield’s Hugo Cabret, an orphan who has been filling in for his uncle (Ray Winstone) as a French Train Station’s clock repairman. His father (Jude Law) died in a museum, and all he has left from his father is an automaton – a mechanical man he repairs with pieces he steals from a toy shop. George (Kingsley) owns the store and catches him, for punishment George forces him to work in his shop in a way that sets up a kinship. But Hugo is more concerned about the Station inspector (Cohen), who sends homeless children to an orphanage. He meets Isabelle (Moretz), George’s goddaughter, and they have a friendship that deepens when it turns out she has a key he needs for his automaton. From there the mystery of George is unlocked.
There is a turn in Hugo which may have been spoiled for many by the reviews which seems unfair to reveal to those who don’t know the big twist of the movie. That said, the film concerns itself with the origins of cinema in such a way that it feels like Scorsese’s film is almost lopsided. Yes, there’s a story about an orphan who’s looking for the secret his father left him, but that becomes secondary to the story about an abandoned filmmaker who’s rediscovered, and about how strangers can form familial units through shared loves.
If this film works it’s because of Ben Kingsley and Sacha Baron Cohen. Kingsley plays George as a man beat down by history who can only survive through ignoring his past glories. His obstinacy and his change of heart make this film work. But just as important is Cohen’s work as the Station Inspector. He’s interested in romancing a flower shop woman (Emily Mortimer), and when he tries to romance her, he has a moment of great magic where he admits his weakness as a way of walking away. It’s a perfect moment for the performer and the character, and both Scorsese and Cohen do great work at making the heavy of the piece a sympathetic and fascinating character.
The film eventually becomes about movie love, but the first act is mostly dedicated to Hugo and Isabelle, and though those sections works fine they feel more like set dressing. Because Scorsese is such a cinephile whenever Hugo is focused on early cinema it comes across as more personal. The film works fine as a kids movie, but when it becomes a love letter to silent cinema, and the inventors and magicians who dreamed big, it achieves something close to greatness. I also love that the film sets up the idea that it’s about destiny, but it isn’t really. There is magic to be found in the automaton, but not the magic originally hoped for. So it’s not a film about destiny, so much as lucky circumstance.
As Scorsese is on in years, it’s hard to compare his more recent output to his established classics. Such is cinema. And such is getting older. Few filmmakers – even Akira Kurosawa – can escape making “old man movies,” even when their later films are just as good as anything they did in their prime. We accept Sick Boy’s theory that artist tend to have a hot period and then an irreversible decline. I don’t know if I can hold this in the same class as Scorsese’s best, but this is a massively entertaining film. And that may not compare it to Taxi Driver or Goodfellas, it’s still a charming romantic love letter to old masters.
Paramount’s Blu-ray offers a DVD and Digital copy. The film is presented widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS-HD master audio 7.1 surround. The transfer is note perfect, though (intentionally) it’s got a blue-white look to give it that period flavor. Shot by Robert Richardson (who won an academy award for his efforts) it looks great on Blu-ray and the 3-D isn’t missed outside of the opening sequence, though a 3-D edition has also been released. The film comes with featurettes, though no commentary. “Shoot the Moon” (20 min.) is the standard making of that walks through the shooting, while “The Cinemagician, George Melies” (16 min.) gives the story’s origin its due. Featured here are the film’s stars, Scorsese, its writers and producer. “The Mechanical Man in the Heart of Hugo” (13 min.) gives automatons their due, while “Big Effects, Small Scale” (6 min.) gets the visual effects guys to talk about the train crash in the movie. “Sacha Baron Cohen: Role of a Lifetime” (4 min.) lets everyone goof on the notorious funny man.