Thursday, 22 December 2011


Sometimes a film passes so far under your radar that you don't even become aware of it until it's suddenly waiting for you at the cinema. Martin Scorsese's Hugo - his first dalliance into a) the children/family genre, and b) 3D - wasn't exactly the sneakiest of features. It's had plenty of buzz from all kinds of sources, and is based on the best selling 2007 novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. All I knew about it was Martin Scorsese's astonishingly ambitious feat to rebuild the entire Gard du Nord train station - in the 1930s - at a film studio in London (and it looks amazing, with a lil help from Mr CGI). But I have never had so many people come up to me and enthuse about how excited I must be about this film because it is such a (ahem, paraphrase) culturemouse kind of film. I hadn't even seen the trailer (I still haven't) - but I was so intrigued, especially after the waft of five star reviews, that I had to go check it out for myself. And thank goodness I did otherwise I would have missed out on the cutest duo of sausage dogs known to man.

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) of the title is a young orphaned boy who lives in the walls of Paris' main train station, maintaining the clocks in the building for his drunken uncle after his father (Jude Law) dies in a fire (thankfully. Sorry, Hugo!). Hugo’s time is spent trying to live in the train station without getting caught by the villainous station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and stealing parts from the station toy shop run by 'Papa Georges' (Ben Kingsley) to help finish his father’s last project: rebuilding an automaton that was found abandoned in his father’s museum. After caught shoplifting by Papa Georges, who steals his precious father’s scrapbook, he strikes up a friendship with his daughter Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) who’s transfixed with the idea of having an adventure, and when she becomes involved in the mystery of the automaton, she realises she has more than a passing connection to young Hugo, as does her father…

Papa Georges is of course, Georges Méliès, the famous director at the beginning of the 20th century, who many revere as the Godfather of cinema. If you don’t know the name you’ll at least know the famous image of the rocket lodged in the eye of the moon. It’s a clever story, full of imagination and invention, and all leading to the birth of cinema, which is of course, the ultimate source of visual storytelling. In some ways, Hugo Cabret is the perfect book to be adapted for the big screen – it’s just a surprise that the director of Taxi Driver was the one to land the job. But luckily, Scorsese knows what he’s doing, and the look and design of Hugo is absolutely stunning. The attention to detail, not just in the successful replication of Gard du Nord station but in the costumes, the hidden passageways Hugo navigates through, the clockwork contraptions – all thought through with precision and flair make this a feast for the eyes. I didn’t see this in 3D (I still continue to miss the point) but was tempted with this one as people have commented on how Scorsese makes full use of it in ways adventure pros such as Burton have failed.

However, once you’ve traversed the majesty of the spectacle, Hugo engages but doesn’t endure. Whilst the story never dulls, there’s a formula to it – although taking a surprising historical turn – that makes it difficult to get excited about. The key to all is the relationship between Georges Méliès and Hugo, and the tentative father-son bond that slowly welds throughout the film. Hugo brings Georges happiness and hope by making him re-live his difficult past, and realise that people still believe in him and his films; Georges in turn loves Hugo and sees himself in the young orphan and at the end takes him in as his own son. Asa Butterfield is particularly impressive as the central character, who’s given an extraordinary amount to do and pulls it off passionately – especially when Hugo is getting hot tempered. The rest of the cast are fine – Sacha Baron Cohen probably getting the most reaction. I love when he saves Hugo from the railtracks and shows he does have compassion. Chloe Moretz continues to annoy me – a minor quibble - but this is not an actors’ film. This is all about the scenery they’re propping up.

It reminded me a lot of Jeunet in style – the quirky characters, a playfulness, the slices of accordion, the awkward, bashful interactions – which brings me to the sausage dogs. Oh my, just the cutest two dogs you will ever see! Immediately they become friends and start adventuring together, just like Isabelle and Hugo. No question my favourite thing about the film!

There have been qualms over whether children will get Hugo and if the cinema stuff will be too heavy for them, but I think it is undoubtedly a children’s film, and wonderful too as it’s one they will learn and discover new things about upon each watch as they grow up and learn more about history and people. But for an adult, Hugo satiates instantly, and only the hankering for an intelligent adventure will make you want to return. And the automaton was freaky as hell... why would you want that watching over you as you sleep in a deserted train station every night?!

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