218 reviews in and I find myself struggling to remember if I have covered any Martin Scorsese films (I haven’t). It would be pretty shocking of me if I had indeed gotten this far without looking at a film by one of the all time greats (it is). And then I remember that there’s plenty of great film makers I’ve not covered on here and I begin to feel like I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be. At least I have reviewed a Shane Van Dyke film… a true luminary of the cinematic arts. Maybe I should do a directorial heavyweights season. Anyway, today I knock Scorsese off my imaginary list of directors I have failed to talk about with his first ever children’s film, Hugo. Click the link for the review!!!
In Hugo a young, homeless child, conveniently for the marketing department also called Hugo (Asa Butterfield), lives a life hidden away from the world inside the clocks of Paris’ Gare Montpasse train station. He keeps the clocks working day and night knowing that as long as they keep working no-one will notice that his drunken uncle, the man who is supposed to be keeping them running has vanished. He spends his days watching the routines of the travellers and employees of the station go about their daily business. Hugo has a secret past time though that involves sneaking to a toy shop in the station to steal clockwork parts to fix and automaton that he and his father had been attempting to repair up until his fathers death. So we have one homeless child, a missing alcoholic uncle and a dead father. Well done Scorsese. You’ve managed to make kids films depressing. Except he really hasn’t. I’ll explain why in a little bit but suffice to say what Scorsese has managed to do here is create a genuinely multi-layered and well crafted piece of children’s entertainment that doesn’t shy away from the more painful elements of life that a child may experience. Despite this the film manages to also be heart warming, touching and occasionally brilliant with it’s depictions of adventure and fun.
It is rare these days for many films aimed at children to bother to go as far as they could do when it comes to dealing with emotional issues. Think about a classics kid’s film such as The Wizard of Oz that deals with complex thematics of the weight of death, the pressures of heroism and the occasional moment of horror. No compare that to one of the highest grossing modern kid’s films in Alvin & the Chipmunks and tell me which you’d rather have your kids watching. If you said Alvin & the Chipmunks you are a bad parent. Kids need to be confronted with real life facts through stories and films to prepare them for adult life and allow them to be accustomed to the weight that, for example, the death of a loved one can bring. Children’s films used to deal with these themes but nowadays I can only think of a handful that do. And even less that do so effectively. For example, Coraline did a great job of depicting a child’s feelings of being ignored whilst Madagascar deals with animals that talks and act exactly like their real life voice actors. Paranorman dealt with death and sanity whilst Alvin & the Chipmunks dealt with nothing whatsoever beyond telling children that if they want to be popular they have to become famous. Hugo confronts children with the idea of loss, being trapped in a life you may not enjoy and then weaves a story about a child doing what he can to achieve his goals in spite of the bad hand he’s been dealt.
Because of Hugo’s multi-layered themes it manages to be one of those rare films even the most curmudgeonly of adults will be able to enjoy, especially if you’re a bit of a film geek. Where Madagascar “makes the reference” by having a meerkat.. or lemur… whatever that thing was… sing I like To Move It… Scorsese schools modern film makers on what references are by littering visual quotes to the films of the silent cinema era. But it goes beyond simple referencing to the point where silent film becomes a centre point for the film. Hugo butts heads with the owner of the toy store he had been stealing clockwork parts from. This store belongs to an old man named Georges (Ben Kingsley) who appears to be quite the grump and not at all pleased at discovering the notebook Hugo has depicting an automaton capable of drawing. It turns out that this man is pioneer of early film Georges Melies. Hugo talks at one point with Georges’ adopted daughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace-Moretz) of a film his father that described to him that depicted dreams on the screen and a rocket crashing into the eye of the moon. That image being the famous image from Melies A Trip To The Moon. The entirety of this film’s plot from the mid point onwards is devoted not only to silent film but to the task of inspiring the film’s viewers to look beyond the films they are presented with and to also to maybe even demand the greatness depicted by Melies.
Scorsese understands something many people don’t, that being that children aren’t the snobs that many adults end up being when it comes to their entertainment. Many kids will watch this film and see all these images from Melies’ films and, whilst they may not realise it at the time, those images will stick in their mind and influence any future love of film they may come across. I know this works because I stumbled across films such as Nosferatu and the films of Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin as a child and those influences still creep into my curiosity of the early days of film that I have today. Hell, since the start of this year I have reviewed a modern take on silent film (The Artist) and one of the greatest silent films (Battleship Potemkin). I’d bet if you looked back to the films you saw as a child many of the styles you enjoyed most back then are still in your movie watching habits, be they adventures such as Indiana Jones or horror films like A Nightmare On Elm Street. Basically, Hugo is the sort of film that will keep coming back to a child’s mind as they get older and they will appreciate with a more knowledgeable view as an adult because it’s content is so broad and rich.
That’s not to say the film is perfect though. There’s a number of effects shots that have that very fake computer generated look that many films would have 10 years back. The digitally drawn view of Paris circa 1931 looks overly clean and perfectly designed. The film’s opening shots have a virtual camera swooping through the train station which is filled with some very flatly composited filmed extras and a very obvious pair of computed drawn trains. There is a point where this virtual shot becomes a real shot as the camera enters the real Shepperton Studios set and you’ll instantly see the difference in legitimacy of the real location being filmed when compared to the fake one seen a few seconds prior. On top of this the film feels as though it is missing a few story elements. Many of the side characters are given wafer thin stories which help to convey a sense of everyone’s life being a small part of some larger machine, as Hugo sees the world, but these elements are handled in the slightest way they can be in order to make sure the film’s complex finale can come together as it needs to. As such some of these asides feel a little like wasted time at the moments they are depicted in the film. They pay off for sure, but when so much of the film is focused on the mystery Hugo and Isabelle are investigating the moments where the film suddenly follows the Station Inspector Gustave (Sacha Baron-Cohen), for a few minutes feel as though they are in the way of the mystery we are fully invested in. But, I should stress, these feel like a minor intrusion and the pay off to them works so well you can forgive them. It just feels like these side stories had certain parts of them removed in the interests of time. One last tiny, tiny gripe. Never put young man make up on an older actor. It never works. It’s like how if you put old man make up on a young actor he’ll end up looking like Old man Biff Tannen in Back To The Future 2.
I know I wrote a long paragraph of issues there but genuinely the great elements of this film far outweigh any of those slight imperfections. Hugo is a delightful film and after having finally got around to watching it (and The Artist a short while back) I now fully understand why the two of those films where so hotly in contention at last years Oscars. Although I still feel Drive should have been up for and won Best Picture. Apparently Martin Scorsese has said he’d rather be making children’s films from now on. If he can keep making films for kids that manage to be as rich as Hugo then more power to him. Lets face it, what else does Scorsese have to say about the world of crime that he hasn’t already? Hugo is a film that will no doubt stand the test of time as a children’s adventure and, really, you kind of expect that sort of quality when Scorsese is the one behind the camera.