It’s hard to believe that the Martin Scorsese, a director who is known for his bloody, violent films such as Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, and The Departed could also be responsible for something as sweet and tender as Hugo. Yet, despite lacking some of the obvious Scorsese hallmarks, a number of themes and motifs remain that are undoubtedly his and his excellence in story telling combined with what was clearly a passion project resulted in a magical adventure told through the eyes of a child, and in turn creates a childlike wonderment for audiences.
Hugo is about a young boy (Asa Butterfield in the titular role), no more than 11 years old in 1930s Paris, who, after his father (played by Jude Law in flashbacks) dies, is sent to live with his negligent drunk uncle in Paris’s train station. His uncle is responsible for winding the clocks each day and teaches Hugo the trade. When his uncle disappears on a drunken binge never to return, Hugo is left solely in charge of keeping the time in the train station. Stealing food and other odds and ends to get by, he lives behind the walls of the train station fending for himself. Hugo lives his life watching out at other people and observing the world from behind the giant clocks that loom over the station. He cannot roam freely in station lest he be captured and sent to the orphanage, so he can merely watch from afar.
The only item he has to remember his father by is a automaton, a mechanical man that he and his father were working on restoring together. His father, a watchmaker by trade, taught Hugo about machines and a value to them beyond just gears and switches. After his father’s death Hugo commits himself to fixing the automaton himself, not knowing what it will lead him to discover. He steals little gears and knickknacks from wherever he can find them, most often from the toymaker’s booth.
The toymaker is a crotchety old man (Ben Kingsley) is Georges Melies, a pioneer of not only the movies themselves, but of special effects. Once a famed artist and maker of movies, Melies eventually falls out of fame and is left with nothing other than the toy store he runs in the train station. Melies started his career as a magician and applied that sensibility to the cinema, creating some of the most whimsical short films of the early years of cinema, many of which still remain as among the most important in pioneering special effects in the movies. None of this, of course, is known to Hugo who only sees him only as a miserable man stuck behind a booth full of novelty toys. Hugo befriends his God-daughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), and the pair bond over their shared love of adventure. They seek out to discover the mystery behind Papa Georges' sour attitude and the meaning behind their shared connection to the automaton.
I don’t want to give away too much because watching the story unfold is a wonderful journey and I’m afraid if I say more it might ruin some of the charm of the film. But I will say this: ultimately this film is a movie about movies. Isabelle is fascinated by books, yet Hugo introduces her to the world of cinema. For Hugo, and for all of us, movies are a means by which we remember and connect to our past. It’s a way he can connect to his father, who introduced him to the medium. It’s a way to be transported to other worlds and experience adventures one might never go on himself. It’s a dream screen that, as Melies himself said, a way to watch our dreams unfold before our eyes in a totally conscious state.
For Scorsese, film history and film preservation is a passion project. He peppers this film with references, both direct and more subtle to the film pioneers and the importance of preserving their legacies. The Lumiere brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Edwin S. Porter, Buster Keaton, and others all make appearances in one way or another in this movie. Comments regarding how time has not been kind to old films refers to Scorsese’s tireless work in film preservation, bringing once lost and orphaned films back to life. In Hugo, Scorsese treats us to some of these old films, some of which on the brink of extinction and now considered canonical in the study of film history.
There is something interesting about the use of clocks as a reoccurring motif. Hugo lives his life peering out from behind clocks. Clocks are something which are looked upon to record the passage of time, as a pure function. To Hugo, clocks are literally his life. They’re where he lives, where he works, and where he connects to his father. Hugo identifies with these machines, explaining that just as clocks and each of the individual dials and gears which go into making it have a defined purpose, so must he. Everyone has a role in the world and it’s his responsibility to both discover and fulfill that role. Only once he is able to emerge from behind the clocks and exist in the world with everyone else will he be able to truly understand his father's legacy and fulfill his purpose in the world.
Scorsese knows a thing or two about movie magic, and takes the lessons he's learned from Melies and applied it to this film. Another visual motif he employs is one which has come into popularity recently. This movie, similar to Sherlock Holmes or Wild Wild West, relies on the aesthetic sensibilities of Steampunk which is based in the Victorian age where steam was used to power machinery. Steampunk has become a movement quickly emerging into greater popularity, especially aided by movies like these which bring it closer to the forefront. The use of gears and a heavy reliance on machinery is the clear link to Steampunk and it's important here as it was really pioneered by Jules Verne in his book, 2000 Leagues Under the Sea. Hugo even makes a direct reference to this book as a site of great adventure (and Scorsese's wink to Steampunk aficionados). The movie is all about adventure and excitement and using a Steampunk design is the perfect visual indicator to signify this idea.
Through the magic of movies, Hugo quite literally goes on one of his greatest adventures and ultimately finds the family which he thought he thought of which he would never once again be a part. It’s a wonderful movie which fulfills the early film pioneers’ goals of transporting the audience to a magical place and taking them on a wondrous adventure.
Video about Georges Melies on The BBC: