My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Snapshot: A well-acted, thoroughly engaging movie for grownups with some astounding 3D cinematography.
The following is as spoiler free as I can manage, but for pure enjoyment, I advise you to see the movie without preconceptions—make your experience as magical and surprising as you can—you won’t be disappointed.
Going in, I didn’t know what to expect from this PG-rated film from Martin Scorsese. I was unfamiliar with the source material, and from the trailer it could have been almost anything; all I knew there was some boy clambering through the insides of giant mechanical clocks. Would it be a children’s story? A fantasy? It turns out to be an enchanting family drama that pays tribute to the pioneers of cinema—not surprising, considering Scorsese’s love of film history.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a tough and resourceful 12-year-old boy living by himself in the nooks and crannies of the massive Paris train station in the early 1930s. His widowed father (Jude Law) was a clockmaker and tinkerer who died in a fire, leaving the boy in the care of his neglectful, alcoholic uncle (Ray Winstone), the station’s maintenance man. Hugo’s only tie to his father is a strange mechanical man they had been restoring. Hugo haunts the hidden recesses of the station, keeping its clocks running on time while searching for components to bring his automaton to life.
Hugo becomes a stealthy thief of not only tools and clock parts, but also of food, always wary of the vigilant eyes (and comic relief) of the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his Doberman. Hugo tries to steal some food and trinkets from the crotchety old man (Ben Kingsley) who runs a toy store. The man confiscates Hugo’s notebook, which has, among other things, sketches of the mechanical man. Desperate to retrieve the notebook, Hugo follows the man home. There, Hugo meets the man’s ward, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), who promises to help him get the book back.
Over the next few days, Hugo and Isabelle’s friendship begins to flourish. Isabelle is the ideal companion for Hugo, providing him spirited support and a large vocabulary, while he provides her with adventure outside of her precious books and a chance to clandestinely see Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (whose signature scene Scorsese lovingly emulates later). Isabelle goads Hugo into standing up to her “Papa Georges” who eventually gives Hugo some odd jobs to do when he realizes how gifted Hugo is at repairing small toys. Hugo becomes determined to discover the secret of Georges’ mysterious past.
Beyond the masterful performances by Kingsley, Butterfield, and Moretz (along with a small but significant role for Christopher Lee), the film’s cinematography and set design are jaw dropping. This is the best 3D since Avatar, perhaps even better than Avatar. Scorsese’s camera thrillingly sweeps through the train station and the dizzying heights of the clock tower—no kidding, take your Dramamine if you’re subject to motion sickness. The panoramic shots of the Paris skyline are simply beautiful.
The third act turns into a loving tribute to the founders of movies, complete with a remarkable recreation of a 19th-Century movie studio in a flashback sequence. Scorsese has crafted an ode to the groundbreaking filmmakers he cherishes, and does it within an engaging, thrilling, and uplifting story for grownups. It’s a film that children will also love.