By Matt Neufeld

November 23, 2011

What a great 2011 fall and holiday season this is turning out to be for some of our best directors working at the top of their game, taking chances, experimenting, and coming out with a barrage of highly-anticipated, well-made and well-received films: George Clooney with “The Ides of March,” Clint Eastwood with “J. Edgar,” Alexander Payne with “The Descendants,” Steve Spielberg with a double-shot of “War Horse” and “The Adventures of Tintin”—-and a thoroughly positive, magical, engaging and beautifully enchanting PG-rated family film from Martin Scorsese.

Whoa, wait—what’s that, you say? Have you lost your mind? Ha—that’s a good one! An enchanting PG-rated family film from Martin Scorsese!

Well, of course, by now you’ve heard that is indeed what Scorsese has done. Yes, Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” is a PG-rated family film—but, it’s really, operating on all artistic filmic levels, a wonderful, optimistic and fascinating film that everyone should go see—not matter what your age. And you should see this film in the theaters—for that’s where a movie like this is meant to be seen.

“Hugo” is simply excellent, as stated, on every level–production design, editing, art design, writing, acting and direction. What a masterful accomplishment for Scorsese–who of course has not been known to do family films! This imaginative film about a captivating, spirited and endearing 12-year-boy living in the walls and hidden compartments of a bustling, lively train station in Paris in the early twentieth century is just fun, enjoyable, beautiful to look at, positive, magical in several ways, and, in part, just one big love letter, valentine and homage to the magic of movies, and to movies in general. But the film is more than just that. It’s also about the importance of family, of the basic joys and difficulties of just growing up (but with this theme not shown in a dark, depressing or horribly morose angst-filled way), about childhood and the wonders of being a child (the child protagonists’ eyes widen when they think about what “adventures” they can take!), and about everyone, kids and adults, finding their way in life, their purpose in life, and connecting the life dots of the past, the present and the future to make sense of things, if that’s at all possible. All of that may sound heavy, but the film is not heavy at all—and somehow Scorsese masterfully weaves together these many important messages and themes—along with equally smart messages about the importance, joy and wonder of magic, illusions, storytelling and imagination—into a film that will only leave you positive, upbeat and optimistic about people and life. Is that over-stating the case? I’m confident to say that it isn’t.

Scorsese may indeed manage to convey many messages and themes in this captivating film, but he never beats you over the head with his subtle messages—and that, of course, is a change of pace for Scorsese! In past films, he may have just literally have had a character beaten on his head to get a point across. But you’ll find literally no blood, no guts, no fights, no violence—nay, I say, never an offensive cuss word or vile swear word!—in this family film! And, again, what a wonder to see this from the man who brought us “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas,” “Cape Fear,” “Gangs of New York,” and “The Departed.” (Yes, Scorsese also made the non-violent period films “The Age of Innocence,” “Kundun” and “The Aviator,” but they weren’t quite the family-oriented films that “Hugo” is.)

A change of pace is nice and good for everyone every once in a while.

“Hugo” is a fantasy rooted in reality—there is really nothing supernatural or paranormal that occurs—and it is a film whose reality is based in fantasy—the main characters all have vivid imaginations, and they all dream about those previously-mentioned adventures, whether it’s in solving a family mystery, exploring various out-of-the-way aspects of the adult world, researching puzzling histories of people, or simply reveling in the wonders of books, stories, stage magic, film magic, and various mechanical objects, toys and inventions! The world of “Hugo” is a world viewed from the minds of kids, from kids’ imaginations, and, most importantly, from the singular viewpoint of a lovable kid who is just struggling to find his place in the world, and struggling to just survive in the scary world he’s somehow found himself in. Additionally, though, the world of “Hugo” is also a world viewed from the perspective of adults who are kids at heart, and a world viewed from the minds of various types of artisans, including writers, inventors, magicians, filmmakers and tinkerers. Everyone, it seems, is a dreamer, but they all have their feet and hearts firmly grounded in common sense. There is no room in this particular world for Travis Bickle or Max Cady or Henry Hill–and, this time around, that’s a good thing.

“Hugo,” based on the incredibly popular and filmic-in-its-own-right children’s book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, tells the story of Hugo Cabret (an engaging, wide-eyed and captivating Asa Butterfield), a sweet, likable lad whose perfect life with his equally-likable inventor-curator dad (Jude Law) is abruptly, jarringly changed one day, and that sudden change results in Hugo finding himself, with little chance to adjust to his changed life, suddenly living in the mysterious, clanging and mechanical walls of that busy train station away from his dad, with his alcoholic uncle, who won’t get any awards for Parent of the Year. Hugo subsequently lives in the walls, tends to the various clocks in the station (his uncle’s job, which Hugo takes over when the uncle goes missing), and, from the eyes of a child, Hugo spends his days watching the various dramas that are played out every day in the station. And, the poor boy has only two things left that connect him to his father—a detailed and intricately illustrated notebook with all sorts of mysterious mechanical drawings, and a mechanical automaton, which is an automated robot-like device, built in the shape of a person, that can move and write messages with the right gizmos, doo-dads, gadgets and keys in stuck in the right places. Hugo is on a mission to just survive in the station, but he’s also on a mission to uncover what he believes are remaining messages from his father hidden in the notebook and the automaton.

If that sounds like a great story, you’re right–because it is. You would think a story like that would write itself, and in lesser hands, it would. But talented screenwriter John Logan (“Any Given Sunday,” “Gladiator,” “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” and Scorsese’s “The Aviator”) crafts a screenplay that smartly includes the detailed and picturesque aspects of the book with filmic adventure, insightful dialogue, ruminations on the aforementioned themes and messages, those homages to the arts, and that key perspective of viewing things through the eyes of a child. Selznick, the book’s author, by the way, is related to the noted film producer David O. Selznick, who produced “Gone with the Wind” and “Rebecca,” among others, so movies are in his blood.

Scorsese paid close attention to the book and the screenplay. From the wondrous opening sweeps and pans through a beautifully-drawn and constructed Paris and through the smoke- and steam- and people-filled train station, you realize Scorsese is going to take you on a journey, an adventure!, as the camera travels effortlessly in and around objects bustling through the train station—a great opening sequence that promptly introduces you to Hugo’s world.

Hugo lives an interesting life in the train station, but he’s itching to somehow get that automaton working and connect with the past messages from his dad. He has a chance meeting with an equally-lonely, and equally-troubled, older toy shop owner in the station, Georges (Ben Kingsley, in fine form and living up to his stellar reputation in an emotionally-demanding role), and Hugo also has a chance encounter with the toy owner’s foster daughter, Isabelle (wonderfully and sweetly played by Chloe Grace Moretz, who from her first lines seems to strike an instant chemistry for Butterfield and his character). Bit by bit, with help from Isabelle and despite some roadblocks stubbornly put up by the difficult Georges, Hugo begins to solve the puzzles and mysteries surrounding his father, the automaton–and Georges.

Without giving away direct plot points, through various machinations, Hugo and Isabelle solve several mysteries, with the studious, academic help of a kindly, intelligent and insightful early film professor, Rene Tabard (a delicate, mannered and easygoing portrayal by Michael Stuhlbarg). Their research and adventures somehow lead to the discovery of the early genius-level magician and filmmaker, Georges Melies–who actually existed, in real life, and who created some of film’s earliest, most memorable images and films! One of those images just happens to be one those crazy images that resonate deep inside your mind–and stay there: The image of an early rocket ship propelled to the moon–and ending up stuck in the literal face of the moon, with the moon expressing a somewhat displeased reaction. This inspired vision appears in “A Trip to the Moon,” from 1902. That singular image is one of hundreds–hundreds!–wonderfully created by Melies in a mad rush of production in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century–until, as depicted in “Hugo,” World War I came along and destroyed everything, including the zeal, ambition and creative muse of Melies.

Along with the excitement of Hugo and Isabelle conquering their fears of the adult world, conducting their adventures and unraveling mysteries close to both of them, Scorsese somehow ably and smoothly throws in an entertaining and informative history lesson about early film, showcasing Melies’ early directing, producing and acting in his unique glass-house studio, showing how Melies and his crew devised, constructed, staged and filmed some of Melies’ early movies. This, too, is beautifully portrayed, and is fascinating–you get a behind-the-scenes tour of early filmmaking and directing and producing techniques. But Martin Scorsese is doing much more with these early film history sequences and lessons–he’s throwing in yet another subtle message, this time about a particular area of interest to him: film preservation. In real life, Scorsese has been a giant in the increasing movement to save and preserve not just early film, but film from all eras. Much like wild animals losing their habitats in an increasingly concrete world, films from all eras have become, through time, endangered and even extinct. Films face extinction due to several factors, from poor early cataloging, record-keeping and preservation, to poor storage, to simply just getting lost due to few copies of many films actually being maintained. Some films are lost forever, alas. Scorsese, and others, have been fighting to preserve as many films as they can, working against time and the elements that threaten to literally dissolve many films.

Scorsese tells this tale in the film generally subtly, but a character does state flat-out at one point, “Time has not been kind to old movies.” It’s a direct message about film preservation that no one really can argue with, so you can excuse the directness in this particular case! But the message of preserving film is intricately woven into the storyline, too, so it all connects together. This, again, is a credit to the clever screenplay by Logan and the subtle direction by Scorsese.

Along the adventurous way, Hugo and Isabelle cross paths with some colorful characters in the station, and you have a talented supporting cast giving these side characters some distinctive life. Sacha Baron Cohen perhaps gives the most restrained, controlled, mannered performance of his entire life as an antogonist, the strict and stiff and socially awkward Station Inspector; the wonderful Richard Griffiths as a kindly station patron, Monsieur Frick; and the always-great, always-mysterious, always-classic Christopher Lee as a kindly bookseller, Monsieur Labisse. What Christopher Lee can do with one look, one sentence of dialogue and one movement of his body is an instant acting lesson.

While Ben Kingsley gives a multi-layered, complex performance as the talented and troubled Georges Melies, the stars of “Hugo” are really Butterfield and Moretz. Cute kids are a dime a dozen, but cute kids who can portray varied emotions and who can carry a dazzling film such as this are rare indeed. Butterfield, a British actor who is 14 and has already made his mark in several earlier films (“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “Nanny McPhee Returns”) shows that he can act by conveying the varied, tiered emotions that Hugo feels in his life, while Moretz, who is American and also 14, is sympathic, caring and understanding as Isabelle in ways far beyond her years, in regards to Moretz the actress and Isabelle the character. Together, they make a great team and initiate some chemistry that is rare among child actors. We’ll likely see only good things from these young actors in the coming years.

Much has been made about the film’s use of–sigh–3D. I’m not a particular fan of 3D–not just on some base level, but because the device usually is just simply a lame marketing gimmick, it usually detracts from the film, it’s usually literally not needed, and it’s usually just plainly a pain in the eyes, head and heart. And 3D actually contributes to a film only once in a trip to the blue moon. It managed to work in “Avatar,” and it managed to not work in just about every film since then. You’ll be more than happy to hear that, yes, the 3D does indeed work–and work well–in “Hugo.” That’s saying a lot coming from a 3D detractor. But, again, credit Scorsese’s filmmaking talent–he’s smart enough to not just use 3D as a gimmick, to integrate the 3D aspects directly into the storytelling, and to make the 3D affects as magical as the fantasy world inhabiting the film. In “Hugo,” snowflakes falling from the sky appear to fall down around you, like they do in a real snowstorm. Ashes float in the air, as they would if they flew from a cloth. Fireworks sizzle and pop and dart about the room–as they do in the sky during a fireworks show. Steam and smoke and fire come right at you and envelop your sight-lines–as they would in real life. And a villain’s threatening face ever so slowly creeps and creeps and creeps out of the screen toward you, as if to say, this is a face to fear! Now, that’s an effective use of 3D!

Scorsese didn’t need any affirmation from James Cameron, “Avatar’s” director, but Scorsese got it in a smart, fun interview that The Hollywood Reporter recently conducted with Cameron and Scorsese. “It’s constantly supportive of what you’re doing artistically and never detractive,” Cameron said about Scorsese’s use of 3D in “Hugo.” Also: “I can just tell you my reaction, which was it was a joyful film for me to watch to see a great artist embracing the new tools of 3D so perfectly.”

And how many times have we seen the authors of books trash the film versions of their books? Often. Well, here’s what Brian Selznick said about “Hugo” in an interview with CNN: “I’ve seen two rough cuts of the movie, and I think it’s absolutely stunning. It’s incredibly beautiful, a very faithful adaptation of my book. If anything, my story makes more sense as a movie because it’s in large part about the history of cinema. Director Martin Scorsese is working in 3D in the movie, using it in a way I don’t think anyone has before. James Cameron, who really pioneered the use of 3D technology in ‘Avatar,’ calls “Hugo” a masterpiece, and I quite agree. As the author of the original book, it’s extremely gratifying because there are sequences throughout the movie where Scorsese’s camera followed my picture sequences exactly. The book is all there on the screen, yet it all feels very much like a movie.”

Folks, when the last major innovator of 3D praises your use of 3D in your new film, and when the author of the book upon which your film is based calls the film “absolutely stunning,” well, what more can you ask for.

“If you lose your purpose, it’s like you’re broken,” a character states in “Hugo” during a particularly insightful and analytical conversation about why we sometimes stumble on life’s difficult path. Everyone’s always trying to find a purpose, and everyone’s always fighting against becoming broken–in “Hugo,” and in life. It’s not easy for anyone. In “Hugo,” Scorsese provides his characters with several purposes, and they manage to fix what’s broken, literally, physically, and mentally. “Happy endings only happen in the movies,” someone states in the film, and it’s not giving anything away to say that the paths traveled in “Hugo” lead to happy endings. Sometimes, that’s all we want.

Maybe it’s true that true happy endings do only happen in the movies, but for about two hours, “Hugo” provides a wonderfully happy ending to a day, afternoon or night at the movies.

HUGO (127 minutes, at area theaters) is Rated PG for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking.

Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years. He was previously a daily local news reporter and features writer for The Washington Times and The Frederick News-Post, and he was the media relations publicist for The Washington Performing Arts Society. Matt is currently the News Editor for Carroll Publishing in Bethesda.