Dir. Martin Scorsese
Would it surprise you to hear that the director of a visually ravishing new 3D film for children was none other than Martin Scorsese, whose previous cinematic highlights involve the mob, a raging pugilist, and a Mohawk-sporting vigilante? Would it surprise you any less if you found out the topic of the film in question involved a brilliant former filmmaker whose iconic early films paved the way for all that has come since? Scorsese has adapted Brian Selznick's loving ode to orphans, automatons, and filmmaker Georges Méliès, set in the decaying splendor of 1930's Paris, and done it a rough sort of justice, if only it were half as magical as it wants to be.
Doe-eyed Asa Butterfield plays the titular Hugo Cabret, a young orphan whose clock-maker father (Jude Law) dies in a horrific and mysterious fire, leaving him in the drunken hands of his uncle (Ray Winstone), the clock winder at a bustling Paris train station. When his uncle also goes missing, young Hugo takes the heavy task of keeping the clocks wound himself, scurrying through a network of crowded tunnels, winding staircases and giant, swinging pendulums, terrified of being found out by the local Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), and dragged to the orphanage. Hugo's other mission is to try to restore an old and battered automaton -- something of a primitive robot-like contraption with many complicated gears, pulleys and springs -- the last thing he and his father were working on before his dad's untimely demise. Along the way, he befriends a girl his age named Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), whose godfather, Georges, may or may not have been a grand early filmmaker, but now is bitter, sad and unable to cope with his faded former glory.
It's a lot of clocks to keep wound, as it were, to be certain, and Scorsese seems to be having a riotously good time, his camera sweeping down bustling station platforms, through dense crowds of Parisians, and, most lovingly, swooping up the stairways, down the slides and charging through the grinding gears of Hugo's hidden backstage workplace: Essentially, the young male fantasy equivalent of the Secret Garden. The machinery of the film is ever-prevalent, even all-encompassing, as Hugo spies out at the adult world of the station through make-shift keyholes and slits through the corrugated metal. This is a boy, after all, who likes to think of the world as a machine, as he explains to his female friend, thereby ensuring that each piece and part is essential to proper function of everything.
With a well-oiled set-up such as this, though, it's curious the ultimate marriage of the first half of the film, in which Hugo's clockwork world is presented; and the second, which dwells on a (real-life) early film pioneer and Hugo's resurrecting of the old man's soul, feels so forced and strung together. The acting from all the leads is fine -- well, except for Butterfield himself, who has some shaky moments, especially in the prodigious presence of Moretz, who has taken Dakota Fanning's mantel as Georgia's most preternaturally precocious young actress -- but there's something still missing. With all of Scorsese's modern movie CGI magic, the practical soul of the film still goes wanting, especially in contrast to the abundant clips of Méliès work, who had to rely on daring in-house effects and a magician's gift for slight of hand to create his spectacle. Scorsese hopes the film to be an homage to the timelessness of cinematic magic, instead we get a complex piece of machinery whose many, many gears and springs twist and grind against one another for all to see.