“Where are your designated adults?”
When Hugo was announced as Martin Scorsese’s next film, little was mentioned about Brian Selznick’s Caldecott Medal-winning source material, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The big news was the auteur relishing an opportunity to helm his first family film and willingly delve into the world of 3D—a medium seen mostly as a gimmick since Avatar. These revelations kept many from seeing how perfect a fit the material was for the director: a love letter to those responsible for cinema’s genesis and a film historian who has paid homage to their greatness throughout his career.
Selznick’s book and therefore John Logan’s script not only allowed Scorsese to plan elaborately sweeping tracking shots utilizing the 3D technology to its fullest potential, it also let him recreate the magic of both the Lumière Brothers’L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat from 1895 and Georges Méliès’ 1902 masterpiece Le Voyage dans la Lune—two works that changed the landscape of film forever. Centered on a young boy living inside the walls of a Paris train station, Hugo’s eventual progression into this cinematic history lesson comes from an unlikely source.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) has been stealing shop owners’ food and mechanical gears from the old toymaker Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley) for months now. Secretly employed to work the clocks at the station—his Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) long since gone on an alcoholic bender after training ceased—the boy does his best to elude the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) while fixing the broken automaton his father (Jude Law) found shortly before an untimely, fiery death. Alone and much older than his years show, Hugo yearns for a purpose, refusing to believe he’s just a leftover part forgotten in the darkness. Dreaming to one day heal the metallic human figure sitting dormant at its desk, his hope is to discover a secret message from his father hidden within.
There is more to the shrewd old man whom Hugo pilfers materials from, though. Feigning slumber to finally catch this thief, Papa Georges discovers the boy’s hand-drawn notebook of the robot his father found neglected in a closed-down museum. A moment of angry clarity flickers behind the man’s eyes as his demeanor turns from playful authoritarian to rage. We’re left to wonder why he has such a visceral reaction to the drawings just as we watch Hugo lose the ability to fix the only thing he had left of his Dad. Confiscating the book and leaving to go home, the boy follows him in the cold and tries hard to appeal to his kinder sensibilities. Declaring Hugo a thief with a dismissive glare, Georges threatens to burn the book and closes the door in his face.
Willing to do whatever it takes to reacquire the notebook, Hugo sees Georges’ young Goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) and pleads for her assistance. Agreeing to help her new friend, the girl only asks to be included in the adventure to follow. Sheltered by Papa Georges and Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory), Isabelle’s only release has been through the books of Monsieur Labisse’s (Christopher Lee) library and her imagination. It is here where the two discover the origins of cinema through a historian named Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlberg), their newfound fervor in the medium initiated by Hugo’s automaton’s completion. One more breadcrumb on their investigation, it is Isabelle’s serendipitously shaped necklace charm that unlocks the robot and uncovers impossible connections between them buried deep from two decades of leaving fond memories behind.
Hugo and Isabelle’s adventures through Paris are chock full of fun as both actors exude a perfect mixture of earnestness and innocence to find their place in the world. His propensity for fixing objects gives him purpose, but watching those around him disappear causes him to wonder why any of it matters. Her inability to be a kid has cultivated a large vocabulary from hours spent in books, but how many dangerous missions can she read about without going on one herself? A perfect match, these two halves of an unlikely whole have fatefully been set on a collision course to discover answers they both seek. With Papa Georges still a quiet tempest of emotion, the kids must tread softly as they realize their duty is to fix his turmoil. Setting out to give meaning to their lives, they end up reintroducing the world to a living legend long thought gone.
Opposite this central crux—one eventually taking the film into an exposition heavy third act risking the loss of younger children uncaptivated by the meticulous reenactment of movemaking magic—are also a couple of cute background stories of burgeoning French romance. Richard Griffiths’ Monsieur Frick and Frances de la Tour’s Madame Emilie court around her opinionated dog as Emily Mortimer’s Lisette enchants Sacha Baron Cohen’s Inspector from afar. One of the best characters with broad physical comedy to engage young and old, Cohen is the glue attaching these peripheral vignettes to Hugo’s journey. By chasing the boy despite a WWI souvenir leg brace, he and his menacing dog become the villainous foil to our young hero. It’s Lisette and Emilie who eventually show him to be more than this, though—an orphan yearning for purpose and companionship himself.
Cohen’s black hat ambitions allow Scorsese to cut through the scenery as his policeman squeakily advances on the boy multiple times and lets the film’s three-dimensionality become worth the inconvenience of clunky glasses. Speeding through the station with intriguing camera angles inside precisely art directed spaces, the motion is as fluid and exciting as the quieter moments are informative and resonate. For every chase there is a well-acted scene of reflection as characters evolve and realize how special they are. Kingsley is the best at this—his performance a real treat going from present day depression to past exuberance—but Butterfield holds his own as well. This bright young star breathes authenticity into the role as his Hugo reinvents a man from the rubble of self-destruction while also becoming the person he hoped he could be. No longer left to look at a world moving without him, Hugo becomes its most integral piece.