Occasionally, a movie will come along where the trailers simply did not represent what the film was really about. The marketing department will emphasize the most accessible aspects of a film (action, romance, comedy) while leaving out whatever the real film may be. Some of the most egregious examples I can think of was Pan’s Labyrinth‘s publicity when it came out as a family friendly fantasy adventure (ummm… definitely not family friendly whatsoever unless you want your child having nightmares for the rest of their life, the original marketing for Sweeney Todd only highlighted the traditional Tim Burton aspects of the film and not the fact that it’s a Stephen Sondheim penned musical, and Watchmen‘s trailers made everyone who hadn’t read the comics expect that there would be significantly more action in the film than there really was. Martin Scorsese’s newest film (which picked up 5 Oscars at this year’s ceremony), Hugo, can be added to this list because I clearly remember the trailers portraying this as some sort of steampunk children’s adventure when in reality it is a quiet and often contemplative ode to the pioneers of silent cinema and finding your purpose in life. I’m glad the film is the latter because much like 2009′s Where the Wild Things Are, I suspect that this is a children’s film that will be far more enjoyed by its adult audience than the children who will likely not appreciate the subtleties of its themes and may become bored by the deliberate pacing of the story.
In the 1930′s, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) is an orphan living behind the walls of a Parisian train station. When his father (Jude Law) died in a fire, Hugo was sent to live with his alcoholic uncle who fixes the clocks at the station. When the uncle abandons Hugo, he’s left to fend for himself, maintaining the clocks and stealing food to survive while trying to avoid the watchful eye of the station’s Inspector General (Borat‘s Sascha Baron Cohen). The only item that Hugo has to remind him of his father is a robot called an “automaton” that Hugo’s father believed would write a message when fixed, but he died before he can fix it. Hugo regularly pilfers broken toys for parts from the toy store of Georges (Ben Kingsley), an elderly man who becomes very upset when he sees Hugo’s notebook which has drawings/blueprints of the automaton. Hugo befriends Georges’ granddaughter Isabella (Let Me In‘s Chloe Grace Moretz) and the duo quickly discover that Isabella’s Papa Georges is in fact legendary French filmmaker George Melie whose 1902 classic, La Voyage Dans Le Lune, remains one of the most celebrated science fiction films of all time.
Martin Scorsese has certainly stepped outside his wheelhouse for this film, and while it has certain flaws that could have been avoided (a significant amount of padding, a very slow beginning that does little to supplement the major themes of the film), it is as much a success as his other non-crime related films have been such as The Aviator, Raging Bull, or After Hours (it has never ceased to strike me as odd that After Hours is Scorsese). While there are certain elements of children’s cinema at play here (children protagonists, light action/thrills, 3D effects that contribute little to the overall film), this movie is too mature (intellectually not sexually or in terms of language) and metatextual to really be effective for children. I can picture kids watching this film and often being bored out of their gourds because there isn’t much in the way of humor (except for Sascha Baron Cohen) and the movie is fairly sad and subdued til the end when the inevitable happy endings finally arrive. It is filled to the brim with allusions to classic moments in silent movies, and the film will often go extended lengths without any dialogue (and just the superlative score. How did it not win Best Original Score at the Oscars) to capture that classic feel. Much like Cinema Paradiso (if not quite as magical), this is a film about loving movies and the way they can change our lives, and that message will likely be lost on younger audiences who wouldn’t know who Buster Keaton was let alone a French filmmaker like Georges Melies.
Asa Butterfield only has three or four features to his name, but he has the potential to join co-star Chloe Grace Moretz as one of the emerging child talents. With such knowing and piercing blue eyes that he recalls a similarly young Elijah Wood (in The Good Son), I haven’t seen a child actor evoke such intense feelings of hurt, abandonment, and loneliness in ages, but he’s also able to show a playful side as well. Chloe Grace Moretz is the next Dakota Fannining (but more talented), and ever since she uttered the word “c*nt” in Kick-Ass, she’s been on the tips of everyone’s tongue, and now that she’s worked with Martin Scorsese, what else is there for her to do except try and get an Oscar nomination like Abigail Breslin received for Little Miss Sunshine. She hasn’t done anything on that caliber yet (though she was great in Let Me In, Kodi Schmitt-McPhee actually outshined her [which is the reverse of my feelings about the stars of the original Swedish film]), but I think with time, she can establish herself as the premier child actress and I have little trouble believing she’ll continue to have a career as she grows older. Ben Kingsley remains one of the all-time acting greats, and while his performance as Melies wasn’t among his career’s best, it was still an effecting portrait of old age, regret, and hope.
This film is not really what it was advertised to be, and my recommendation that all Martin Scorsese fans (and all pure cinephiles) should view it is not the same as a commendation that Hugo is prime viewing material for younger audiences because I honestly don’t think they’d be able to appreciate it. However, for everyone that loves films that capture the innocence of childhood but don’t insult your intelligence as an adult, Hugo is a beautiful and breathtaking achievement, and it’s gorgeous cinematography captures the dreamlike state of the best of Melies’ work. I wish that its opening moments had the same nostalgic magic as the rest of the film because I actually fell asleep the first time I tried to watch the beginning of this movie which was a shame because immediately thereafter, the film picked up and sucked me in with its visual poetry. Scorsese is 70 years old this year, and he can’t have many films left to make (though I pray that isn’t the case). If Hugo proves to be one of Scorsese’s final films, it will be a remarkable tribute to the forerunners that allowed him to become the icon he is today.
Final Score: A-