Year Released: 2011
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Chloë Grace Moretz, Jude Law, Emily Mortimer
(PG, 126 min.)
"Come and dream with me." Georges Méliès
“It’s Neverland and Oz and Treasure Island all wrapped into one.” Hugo’s young Isabelle is describing a bookshop in Paris, but she might as well be talking about this splendid film, one of the best releases of 2011.
Another is Steven Spielberg's War Horse.
It’s about time two of America’s greatest storytellers stepped up to the plate to hit back-to-back home runs in a somewhat disappointing film year. Finally, a December not littered with epics to nihilism and defeat, but one filled with wonder, awe, struggle, and redemption. And of course, a little magic.
All of which are qualities we might not have expected from Scorsese, whom we remember more for the gritty realism and bloody gore of such vehicles as Taxi Driver (1976), Goodfellas (1990), The Departed (2006), and most recently, Shutter Island (2010).
The literary appeal and attention to period details harks back to Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993), but Hugo is free of its somewhat stifling Masterpiece Theatre atmosphere. Scorsese, nearing 70, is clearly a man past trying to impress. He is instead exploring and having a marvelous time while he’s at it. And that attitude compels us to as well.
Like so much great literature and film, Hugo can be appreciated on many levels. It is based on Brian Selznick’s 2007 award winning children’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, about “a wily and resourceful boy whose quest is to unlock a secret left to him by his father,” a broken automaton, a wind-up mechanical man once used in magic shows.
Hugo (Asa Butterfield fom The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and the spitting image of one of my grandsons with his haunting, soulful blue eyes), now an orphan, lives in the labyrinth of giant clock gears high above the Monparnasse Train Station in Paris of the 1930s. His “job” is thrust upon him by his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone), who promptly disappears soon after explaining how to keep the gargantuan machine running. Hugo must make it on his own, getting by on what fruits and pastries he can pilfer from the train station shops, but his real fixation is trying to fix the broken automaton he and his clock maker father (Jude Law seen only in flashbacks) had been working on just before he perished in a museum fire.
Like a cat perched upon a mechanical mountain, Hugo watches the toyshop below run by Georges (Ben Kingley), hoping to catch the old man napping. But the nap is all a ruse, and Hugo is caught by the curmudgeonly shopkeeper, who makes him empty his pockets and return all the little gears he has been systematically stealing to repair the automaton. He also has to forfeit the book of drawings that are the key to the mechanical man.
Since this is the only link to his father, Hugo is desperate to retrieve the book, and he ventures into the snowy streets of Paris to follow Georges home. There he meets a wonderful young girl, Isabelle, another orphan – the film is literally spilling over with them -- now living with her godparents, Papa Georges and his wife Mamma Jeanne.
Hugo, a pastiche of Hucklebury Finn and perhaps David Copperfield/Oliver Twist, with a touch of Hitchcock’s ever watchful Jimmy Stewart from Rear Window, has met the perfect companion. Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) is Little Women’s Jo March and Jane Eyre all rolled into one, filled with romantic notions of adventure, enamored with books, and in love with language. “How about letting me see your covert lair?” she asks Hugo.
On another level, probably one reason it is so adored by film critics, Hugo is a homage to early film making, especially the work of Georges Mieles, best remembered for his most famous film, A trip to the Moon (1902), full of science and whimsy, with the iconic sequence of a rocket smashing into a cheesy – in both senses of the word --man in the moon orb, who wipes away the missile like a politician cleaning up after a whipped cream pie thrown in his face. Part of the genius of Scorsese’s film is that he transcends academia and incorporates his cinematic allusions directly into the narrative. Arrival of a Train at the Station, the 1895 Lumiere brothers pioneering silent film, becomes a prophetic nightmare for Hugo, and a climatic moment in the film. Another thrilling scene recalls “The King of Daredevil Comedy,” Harold Lloyd as a young man dangling desperately from a clock tower in his 1923 classic Safety Last.
On still another level the film brings to mind the 18th century Deism of our founding fathers, who pictured God as a master clockmaker who set things in motion and then sat back to observe. On this philosophical note, Hugo voices the main theme of the film, questioning his and everyman’s purpose in this life. He is talking to Isabelle, but I think he speaks to the audience as well.
I'd imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn't be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason too.
So it is not only the mechanical man that is broken, but the living, breathing version as well. Georges is an embittered old man, the comic villain stationmaster (Sacha Baron Cohen) bears physical and emotional scars, and of course our two orphans, whose magical friendship is never sentimental, saccharin or thank goodness, amorous, are in need of fixing as well. Magically, Hugo sets out to repair all of them, and perhaps mends some of our broken parts as well.
One of the finest films I have ever seen. A must see for the whole family, and that does not happen very often.
What speaks of Paris in the 1930s, but sitting at a café, drinking in the atmosphere as well as your beverage? For the adults, I have chosen a spectacularly festive French drink, deliciously decadent, the Grand Marnier Chocolate Truffle Cocktail.
But, this being a family film, and hoping that Hugo will avoid the fate of his drunken uncle, I have also included a non-alcoholic beverage, Lemon Pressé, a tart and natural mainstay of the French café.
Serve along side these French delicacies:
Bon appétit !
Grand Marnier Chocolate Truffle Cocktail
It’s as smooth as ganache, but not quite so innocent.
Prep Time: 2 minutes
Total Time: 2 minutes
¾ ounce crème de cacao
¾ ounce Grand Marnier
Dash vanilla liqueur
Mix together and pour into a shot glass.
Makes 1 serving.
Recipe Source: About.com
Since this is a family friendly film, I have also included this refreshing, non-alcoholic beverage, a mainstay in French cafés. Using only lemon juice, water, and sugar, it is a simple yet delicious drink.
4 oz fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Pitcher of chilled water
Put a small amount of ice into 2 glasses. Pour 2 oz lemon juice into each glass. Add water and stir in sugar to taste.
Recipe Source: About.com