By Molly Thomas
At first glance, Hugo seems to be about little more than a lonely young boy; but as the film progresses, it becomes clear that Martin Scorsese’s ambitions lie much further: the story of the birth of film itself.
Based on the 2007 illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, the plot (set in 1930s France) weaves the narrative of the fictional titular character (played by the young though experienced Asa Butterfield) with a surprisingly accurate historical account of early filmmaker Georges Méliès (played by Ben Kingsley).
Near the end, the film shifts into a spectacular retelling of the rise and fall of Méliès, the climax being the showing of one of his most famous films, Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon). The sequence is beautifully rendered, and one wonders if Scorsese didn’t feel tempted to remove the fictional story and instead focus on Méliès.
That desire is quite clear through the film. The opening scenes feel slightly aimless. The visuals are wondrous, however, and the setting in a Paris train station and the flashback scenes are beautifully rendered.
The performances are uniformly good, especially Butterfield and Kingsley’s leads. Sacha Baron Cohen plays the antagonist Inspector Gustav, a man villainously pursuing Hugo in order to place him in an orphanage but also softened by his affection for Lisette, the flower girl at the station (Emily Mortimer in a role that doesn’t require much effort).
Chloë Grace Moretz is great as usual as Isabelle, Méliès’s adopted daughter and Hugo’s friend, and so is is Helen McCrory as Méliès’s wife, the real-life actress Jeanne d’Alcy.
To describe the plot would be much too complicated as it is exceptionally intricate for a children’s film. The occasionally heavy-handed story-telling may cause some groans amongst adults. Too.
However, Scorsese and the rest of the Hugo team deserve the plaudits they have received for creating a visually sumptuous, well-acted, and imaginatively plotted story which is clearly not just for children.