By Todd Ford
Hugo is a joy from start to finish. It’s a colorful, delightful evocation of 1930s Paris as playground for two fanciful, imaginative kids – both orphans, one living by his own resources in a train station, the other living with her grandmother and grumpy, peculiar grandfather. It’s full of slapstick chases and funny moments involving dogs. Most kids of all ages should enjoy it.
Definitely see it. Grab the DVD right away and curl up with the whole family. It should be available shortly. The crowd was pretty sparse both times I saw it. But, this isn’t really the type of review I wish to write. I’d rather tell you why it so grabbed me and won’t let go.
I’ve long had a love affair with the work of Georges Méliès – the first wizard of the movies – and that grumpy and mysterious grandfather turns out to be one and the same. By way of the clever “children’s” book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, director Martin Scorsese – here eschewing his usual gangster mayhem and finding a gentler expression – has crafted Hugo as a loving vision of the legendary rise, fall, and redemption of the man who invented movies as a place where dreams come true.
The story of Méliès is all here, mildly fictionalized. Beginning his career as a magician, he one day stumbled into a sideshow screening of a train pulling into a station, causing the startled audience to scurry to safety. As if already seeing King Kong and Star Wars in his crystal ball, he immediately approached the creators of this new magic, the Brothers Lumière, and offered to buy one of their cameras. Offer spurned, and being the genius he was, he simply built one his own.
Within 17 years, the infinitely creative Méliès had made over 500 movies, even wowing crowds with the seemingly impossible feat of A Trip to the Moon. Then, sadly, people lost interest in his type of movies and he became a forgotten man, many of his movies melted down to be reformed into heels for women’s shoes (in real life it was heels for boots). He burned his sets and props in despair.
Hugo is more than mere history lesson though. Its fabric is woven out of images and ideas from the many works of Méliès. He built the first movie studio, a glass building allowing in sunlight, and staged his movies in depth, perhaps shooting through a fish tank toward a stage where actors frolicked in front of layers of backdrops. In Scorsese’s hands, this becomes the most dazzling use of 3D I’ve seen.
Méliès loved dreams and trains and used models to depict an elaborate train station crash in his movie The Impossible Voyage. In Hugo, these become the inspiration for a deliriously impossible dream sequence.
Méliès adored flowers and this infatuation assumes life in the character of a lovely train station florist. Méliès spent his post-moviemaking years running a toy stand. After his death, the same space became poetically re-occupied by a flower stand. Hugo’s combining of this love with this fortuitous bit of history is one of its loveliest touches.
Having once flirted with entering the priesthood, Scorsese has forever sought ways of exploring religious themes, his favorite being redemption. His pet project for decades has been the tireless championing of movie preservation. These two concerns come together in Hugo. After years of sadness, early movie historians began to discover lost prints and rekindled interest in Méliès’ movies.
He ended his life seeing his work treasured anew. His fans have only blossomed ever since.
(Todd Ford has been a film nut since 1981. He watches far too many movies through Netflix and enjoys a home life with his wife, two daughters, two dogs and five cats.)