Whenever a recognizable director announces a new project, we form our own expectations as to what it will be about and how it will look. With a director like Martin Scorsese, we can expect a number of things, namely graphic violence and coinciding themes of masculinity in crisis and religion, for example. These things have helped shape most of his work ever since his big break in the ‘70s, and because of that it’s often easy to forget that he directed The Age of Innocence over 20 years ago. With a prior filmography including Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, a PG-rated period drama was just about the last thing anyone would have expected of him.
At first glance, 2011’s Hugo appears much the same; a family adventure film hardly seems within his repertoire. But considering the film’s source material, a graphic novel entitled the “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” the further the narrative develops, the easier it is to realize that Hugo and Scorsese was the perfect match. When compared to Hugo’s massive budget, not very many, and certainly not enough people went to see it, and that’s a shame because from the very first frame, Hugo exposes an inescapable charm.
Scorsese came to prominence in a time when big Hollywood studios were more willing than ever to take a chance on independent filmmakers, many of whom had extensively studied the medium and found great influence from movies like those from the Italian neo-realist or the French New Wave movements. With that influence creeping through, filmmakers of this era had perhaps a more romantic view of cinema than those, or most of those who came before them. Throughout Hugo, there is a sense of idolizing and idealization that’s infectious and works in spite of its gradual pace and somewhat lengthy runtime.
One of the principal characters of this historical fiction is the incomparable Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), whose marvels of editing and cinematic trickery continue to enthrall and inspire to this day. At the time of the narrative, Méliès is a broken man, believing himself to be a forgotten relic of the past, and it takes the actions of his goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) and the orphan Hugo (Asa Butterfield) to help him embrace his legacy and realize how much he meant. Dealing with one of film history’s most important figures, Scorsese must have found pure passion and excitement in imagining Méliès at his creative best, and every frame containing a reference of his work radiates with gleeful tribute – and so does Kingsley’s performance.
Whatever sort of exuberance Scorsese felt in telling this particular story bled into nearly everything else on display here. The film opens with a master shot of a wintry morning in 1930s Paris, brightly evoking whatever feelings may come when studying a painting of the city at its most vibrant, like Van Gogh’s “Starry Night Over the Rhône” or, more appropriately considering the frequent setting of the Gare Montparnasse, Monet’s “La gare Saint-Lazare.” Then, the camera sweeps through the train station crowd, and the lively blue and copper-orange color contrast lends an extra appeal for the starry-eyed, as if the costume and set design weren’t enough. Though this cannot often be said, due to the depth of field shooting in 3D offers, the decision to do so was remarkably wise, and dare I say even inspired, to a degree.
With such an extravagant vision for the source material – Scorsese offers some interesting insights on the choice to shoot in 3D, by the way – it becomes abundantly clear that Scorsese wasn’t as focused on creating a colorful adventure full of family fun as he was trying to reach the younger crowd and instill in them the sense that film can be magical. It’s almost as if he took on this role to singlehandedly ensure figures like Méliès were kept from being forgotten, like it were a sense of duty felt. Even if that wonder reaches just one child, then he has truly succeeded.
Creating a sense of magic is what some of the best family films do already, so why not do that especially while paying respect to the past? Though not as many people were able to witness that first hand as Scorsese, those at Paramount or anybody else involved would have liked, it is destined to have a legacy few family films, films about film or even most Scorsese pictures can rival. That is, if generations present and future are willing and able to carry the torch.