With Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Christopher Lee; Written by John Logan; Directed by Martin Scorsese; Rated PG (for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking). 127 minutes.
Martin Scorsese’s young daughter asked the famous director when he was going to make a movie she could go and see (as opposed to his signature ultra-violent grimy portraits and gangster epics). The result is HUGO, a magical film in which Scorsese not only demonstrates an unexpected flair for family entertainment, but has made one of the very few 3D films actually worth seeing in 3D. See this on a big screen and prepare to be enchanted.
Based on Brian Selznick’s modern children’s classic The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, the story is about Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan boy who lives in the walls and secret spaces of the train station in Paris, setting the clocks and trying to stay out of the clutches of the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). When Hugo is not stealing food to stay alive, he’s stealing mechanical parts from Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), who runs a toy and watch repair kiosk at the station. One day Georges catches him and confiscates a notebook describing an automaton that Hugo’s late father (Jude Law) had rescued from a museum and was trying to repair. Hugo is completing the work, but needs the notebook back.
While Georges comes across as a bitter and grumpy old man, he has a secret, and with the help of his goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), Hugo is about to uncover it. It is a marvelous secret and if you haven’t read the book it’s probably better to see the movie not knowing much more. Suffice to say Georges has a very colorful past, and the automaton proves to be the key to unlocking it.
Scorsese, who immersed himself in film at a very early age, has made the sort of movie that he must have dreamed about as a young boy. Two child actors carry the weight of the film while remaining two young people off on an exciting adventure. The train station and clockworks are a veritable maze of tunnels, passageways and staircases that fully engage the eye in 3D. And the early 20th century setting gives Scorsese the chance to indulge his inner film geek as the story unfolds, with some images that haven’t been projected on a screen outside of a film class in very many decades.
He’s also filled out the adult cast with some interesting performers even in minor roles. Kingsley is clearly the grown-up star and is just grand as Papa Georges, but there’s also Christopher Lee as a bookseller and Emily Mortimer as a flower girl. Cohen gets to do some slapstick as the obsessive inspector, arresting urchins at the train station and sending them off to the orphanage, but when his character is redeemed, we see that Cohen has been setting us up all along the way.
While “Hugo” is clearly a family friendly film that Scorsese’s daughter could enjoy, it really is a film for all ages. This holiday weekend has produced a bumper crop of outstanding movies that can entertain children and adults. You may want to see them all, but make sure you don’t miss the chance to see “Hugo” on a big screen. Believe it or not, the director of “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “The Departed” has made a family adventure for the ages.***
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.