Review: Hugo (2011)

Posted in Featured Items, Reviews, Theatrical Reviews by - December 04, 2011
Review: Hugo (2011)

Hugo is a brilliant, lovingly crafted film, an instant masterpiece. It’s a five star film with no equal. I typically do not write reviews in the first person, but Hugo has touched me in such a profound and emotion way I cannot communicate its affect on me otherwise. Directed by Martin Scorsese and adapted by John Logan from the Brian Selznick novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Hugo the film reaffirms everything I love about the cinema. It reawakens the passion, the mystery, the adventure…the magic. From now on, if anyone wants to know why I love film, why I love the movies, I can tell them they only need to watch Hugo. The experience of this film tore away at the cynic inside, reached into my heart and exposed passion and emotion I rarely get to share or enjoy at the theater any more. I can only hope others will share the same reaction.

Cross published with Widescreen Warrior.

Going in, I knew very little about Hugo. I was unfamiliar with the source material and I had read nothing about the story or about the movie. In fact, it held little interest for me. All I knew was what the trailer revealed. I knew nothing of the secrets it held. The story appeared to be a child’s tale  – a family film – about an young orphan living in the walls of a Parisian train station in the 1920s. His life goal is to rebuild a mechanical automaton left to him by his father. What I discovered was so much more, a film full of heart and sentiment, not only for the characters in the story, but for the movies themselves. I’m not convinced this is a child’s fable, even if it is told through the eyes of a child, but it is a film every child should see. If you want your children to understand what is so special about the movies, Hugo is about as poetic and beautiful as the explanation can be. At 127 minutes, this live action, mature (in its themes) film manages to keep a full theater populated with children under the age of thirteen glued to the screen. It quickly draws you in and does not let go, it embraces you and guides you on a the most wonderful journey – an adventure of a lifetime.

Martin Scorsese is a modern master, undeniably, but none of his films touch me – speak to me – the way Hugo does. The film is a love letter to the movies, a personal invitation to discover – or rediscover – what is magical and amazing about cinema. This is Scorsese’s best film. His touch, his eye, his vision is in every frame. The film is composed and framed with a experienced hand but with an innocence’s touch. From the very beginning, with a ten minute nearly silent introduction, leading to the single title-card opening credit, the film hooks you, weaving its spell. This is film making at its finest. The sets are fabulous; the characters are charming and whimsical; the cinematography is exceptional. The film reminds me of watching The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars or Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory for the very first time – witnessing the wide-eyed wonderment of a world beyond my dreams.

The acting in Hugo is beyond exceptional. Asa Butterfield is adorable as Hugo with the bluest-of-blue eyes and the face that would make Oliver, Tom Sawyer and David Copperfield envious. His eyes echo the loss the character endures each day as he struggles to rebuild his deceased father’s automaton in hopes of a hidden message. His expressions are a perfect mix of innocence, determination and sorrow – and hope.

Chloe Grace Moretz continues to impress with her performance as Isabelle, a young girl who befriends Hugo and opens his eyes to the world he left behind when his father passed away. Moretz provides the character with an intelligence and charm beyond her years. She’s the window into the lives of each of the characters within the film, even herself. She’s represents the imagination that is absorbing the adventure that drives the film and the emotion that anchors it. She is marvelous.

Above all Sir Ben Kingsley is the biggest surprise in Hugo, reminding us why he is so talented in the first place. At first, his Papa Georges, Isabelle’s guardian, is little more than a grumpy old man, the owner of a toy shop in the train station. He’s an adversary for our hero, a plot point. What he becomes is the soul of the film, full of sorrow and need of saving. He’s a dreamer who has lost his way, damaged, fragile and hurt. He sees in Hugo a reflection of his youth, when his imagination was his guide and muse. The reminder is slowly killing him, pouring salt in an age-old wound. Kingsley is splendid in his role, possibly the best of his career.

Hugo immerses you completely in its world and it uses 3D to do so like no other film has before. The city, its streets, the train station, the era are all brought to life with the enhancement of Scorsese’s use of 3D. The world Hugo lives in is as much a character in this film as Hugo, Isabelle and Georges. The snow falls gently around you as you follow Hugo through the city streets – it feels cold. The catacombs behind the walls are a maze of depths, perspective and shadow in a way only 3D can illustrate. The crowded train station is claustrophobic and kinetic with glimpses of escape appearing and vanishing between the scurrying passengers racing to and from their destinations. Through the clock tower windows, Paris stretches across the screen with its cityscape etched into the farthest background. The 3D is exquisite, positively the best 3D committed to a commercial film.

Scorsese utilizes the techniques in a variety of fashion with an equal eye for each. When in the library books are stacked everywhere, the foreground, the background. They’re scattered and positioned only as they can be in the eyes of the two young characters and they surround the audience as well. Sacha Baron Cohen’s station inspector leans in to question Hugo and Isabelle in one of the most impressive and subtle uses of 3D. Slowly Cohen’s mug leans out of the screen, closer and closer. It’s imposing; it forces you down in your seat; it expresses dimensionally the stature and dominance the inspector has on young Hugo. The 3D makes it tangible. Scorsese also gets to have his fun too; he gets a few “coming-at-you” moments that are perfectly balanced and timed, with a wink and smile. The result is delightful and should not be missed.

The film is not entirely perfect. It has its share of flaws, but all are instantly forgivable. It contains the dreaded dream sequence that is followed by a subsequent dream sequence that is intended to fool the audience. If not for a wonderful nod to the later revealed secrets of the film and some beautiful cinematography, 3D and action, this scene could have undermined the film. Thankfully it is short, whimsical, and provides some meaning despite itself. It also has a poorly executed character with the station inspector, and Cohen’s performance grates from time to time. While not a complete failure by any  means, the character pales in comparison to more fully rounded and developed Hugo, Isabelle and Georges.

In the film, Hugo and Isabelle discover the origins of film provided by the wise hand of Christopher Lee as the librarian and Michael Stuhlbarg as Rene Tabard, a film historian. They are introduced to the first film that was shown to a public audience – a short film of a train pulling into a station. We are treated to a flashback to the film a number of times during the run time with the onscreen audience reacting in amazement, ducking out of the way to avoid the oncoming projected train. The entire film is very much like that to me. Even after all these years of watching movies, I felt a similar reaction watching Hugo. I was amazed, visually, emotionally, intellectually, technically. I realize I am overselling this film but I cannot help myself. Hugo has made me fall in love with the movies all over again. Hugo is the best film of the year. It’s the best film of the decade. Thank you, Martin Scorsese, you mad genius.

5 out of 5

This post was written by Doc Rotten
Doc Rotten is a film critic for Gruesome Magazine and podcast host for Horror News Radio, Monster Movie Podcast, Decades of Horror: 1970s, Decades of Horror 1980s, The American Horror Story Fan Podcast, Hannibal Fan Podcast and The Future of Horror. He was also co-host Dracula on TV TALK and was a contributing reviewer for HorrorNews.Net and Widescreen Warrior. He is also a lifelong fan of horror films, sci-fi flicks and monster movies first discovering Universal Monsters and Planet of the Apes as a young child in the 1970's searching out every issue of Famous Monster of Filmland (and, later, Fangoria). Favorite films include Jaws, The Car, The Birds, The Tingler, Vampire Circus and The Exorcist.