Faith & Film: Hugo

I was intrigued to hear that acclaimed director Martin Scorsese, known for his violent movies including “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” and “Goodfellas” had made a children’s movie. No one disputes that Scorsese is a great director, but this seems quite a departure for him. So I had to check out “Hugo.” I’m very glad I did.

Based on the book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, the film tells the story of an orphan who lives in Paris’ train station in the 1930s. Hugo was taught by his father and grandfather to keep all the clocks running on time in the enormous station. He is frequently seen by those who work at the train station, including the station agent (Sasha Baron Cohen), who keeps chasing Hugo, assuming that he is just a vagrant. No one knows of Hugo’s responsibilities.

Isabelle, whose grandfather (Ben Kingsley) runs a toy booth at the station, befriends the lonely Hugo. Eventually Hugo brings Isabelle to his hidden world inside the station’s great clock. Hugo finds a key that fits a robot found by his grandfather. The robot begins to draw a strange drawing, which eventually leads back to Isabelle’s grandfather. To everyone’s surprise, Isabelle’s grandfather is discovered to be Georges Melies, one of the great pioneers of early films who worked in a Paris studio before World War I. Georges stopped making movies after the Great War. After the horror of the war, no one was interested in Georges’ beautiful and entertaining movies. Through the efforts of a film historian, Georges is recognized and honored for his accomplishments as a great pioneer of film.

“Hugo” is a wonderful movie. It’s visually stunning. Using his famous tracking shots, Scorsese captures the joy and wonder of young Hugo, running through the mammoth train station, eluding the station agent, escaping into his secret hideaway. We see the insides of great clocks with their constant ticking, and marvel at the robot that seems to come to life as he draws with pen and paper. The station comes alive every morning as people come to work in their little shops and cafes. Like Hugo, we observe the interactions among them all with curiosity and delight. Even the station agent shyly tries to woo a pretty flower seller. There’s a beautiful sense that, even though most travelers would hardly notice the community of people who work at the station, they are unique people living their own lives, with their joys and disappointments.

I suspect that Scorsese was drawn to “Hugo” not so much to tell the story of the boy in the train station, but for its connection to the history of film. Scorsese is passionate about the history and preservation of film. The connection to the forgotten film pioneer Meiles no doubt drew Scorsese to this project. The scenes of Meiles in his early studio making movies are amazingly beautiful and a touchingly intimate portrait of a visionary artist. As Scorsese turns 70, he knows the importance of history and his debt to early filmmakers like Meiles, and even Howard Hughes, the subject of Scorsese’s “The Aviator” a few years ago.

I have to say that it took me a few minutes to get into “Hugo” and did not anticipate where it was headed. The 3-D effects are great, but don’t seem like gimmicks as they do in other movies. They are fully integrated into the movie experience from the opening sequence of snow falling gently over the audience. “Hugo” is beautiful to behold, fascinating in its detail, and ultimately a tribute to the ability of movies to captivate and delight an audience in a way that no other medium can.

The pioneer Melies understood movies as a way to share his dreams with people everywhere. I felt like young Hugo, finding delights and surprises throughout this beautiful movie. 100 years after Melies, I’m glad visionaries like Scorsese continue to invite us to share their dreams with them.

Tom Condon, OP