Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer and Jude Law
Review: 5 stars (of five)
Martin Scorcese’s first foray into the kind of film where a pen holds the secret of a boy’s fondest hopes, rather than get shoved through the neck of a mafia thug, is pure cinema magic. It’s a love letter to, and doctoral thesis on, the magic of early cinema and the imagination in general. It’s done in 3D but proves without a doubt that not only does this film not need that very modern gimmick, but no film with a true heart and imagination does.
It’s the story of an orphan boy living in the main Paris train station, tending its clocks in an amazing world of steam and gears—there is scarcely a scene without one or the other, and usually both. It’s a magic era, in this case the early 1930s, and in Scorsese’s hands, an era of wonders. Every scene in the film is delightful to behold, and the director’s mastery of technique makes every moment feel fresh even as he goes out of his way, at some points, to acknowledge his earliest inspirations.
Hugo is also a uniquely all-ages film. It’s not a children’s film per se—it doesn’t “dumb down” to a child’s level, and it doesn’t offer a single scene geared specifically to entertain kids. No pandering, no cheap gags. Yet my screening audience was filled with children (aged maybe six and up) who didn’t make a single sound for more than two hours, just sat there as captivated as their parents. It’s a rare opportunity for a young kid to be able to see an “appropriate” film that is so well-made, so magical, so adult in only the best senses of the word.
The movie also sneaks in a moving and entertaining seminar on one of the earliest great filmmakers, Georges Melies (you’ve seen the clip of the rocket hitting the man in the moon right in the eye), and there is a joy to having Scorsese sharing his own love of cinema with us. In its way, it one-ups Cinema Paradiso as a film about the love of film.
Is there a drawback to the film? At two hours and six minutes, it’s a bit long—but hey Martin Scorsese does not make films on your time. You watch films on Martin Scorsese’s time. If there were flab in the film, it would be in the first half, but the effect of the looser, more indulgent storytelling is that we become more invested in the film. It feels like a sprawling world, like a life, rather than a compressed story. Most filmmakers can’t pull off that extravagance without sacrificing quality, but Scorsese does so effortlessly.
Obviously Scorsese can carry us through a film at whatever pace he likes, but here his intentions are ably supported by an excellent cast, all of whom walk a perfect line between realism and almost parodic “types” that make the film both emotionally engrossing and classically unreal. Asa Butterfield is perfect as our main character, and Ben Kingsley is … Ben Kingsley, and therefore magnificent. Sasha Baron Cohen is delightful as an officious yet affecting station master, and Chloe Moretz, a great young actress who’s been very busy the last couple of years, is as earnest as humanly possible as Hugo’s only friend.
One of the main criteria of a five-star film has to be an ability to be appreciated over and over. This is one of those.