Amid a clamour of CGI animated prequels and sequels at the box-office this Christmas – Happy Feet Two, Puss-in-Boots, Alvin and the Chipmunks 3 - one film stands out as the family entertainment with real heart. That Hugo is directed by none other than Martin ‘Goodfellas’ Scorsese should come as no surprise – he’s been switching genres with ease for years now, and this marks his first full-on film aimed primarily at children (though there’s plenty here for adults too). The major theme of the story, which only begins to emerge halfway through, is equally unsurprising: that of the importance of preserving and celebrating the rich history of cinema. This is after all the man who established a foundation dedicated to the rescue and restoration of unjustly neglected films. It’s easy to see why it was a natural fit for the veteran director.
Perhaps more unexpected is the film’s warm embrace and advancement of 3D as an integral part of the story. Has Scorsese succumbed to a passing fad? History will be the judge of that, but this is undoubtedly the best use of it since James Cameron’s Avatar was released nearly two years ago. Beyond such minor technological questions, it’s a beautifully shot and acted tale about Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who lives in a Parisian railway station, hiding in its secret tunnels and gangways as he winds and maintains the clocks there, all the while trying to avoid the cruel-minded station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, looking uncannily like Arthur Bostrom in ‘Allo ‘Allo) who is determined to keep his patch clear of any vagrants. When he’s not winding clocks or dodging inspectors, Hugo tries to restore a machine – or ‘automaton’ - that was left behind by his late father (Jude Law). The parts he needs to do this he steals from a mechanical toy shop in the station run by the elderly but formidable Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley). The story follows the surprising connection between the boy, the machine, a girl called Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) and the old man, which dives in to the history of cinema itself.
Hugo is a reminder that films can have a message without it being clobbered around the audience’s head; it can in fact be layered in to the story, deepening it while not drawing too much attention to itself. In this instance, Scorsese gives his film preservation soapbox a good workout in a way that never feels like a lecture. Partly this is down to the source material of course - Brian Selznick’s much-praised The Invention of Hugo Cabret - but Scorsese breathes cinematic life in to the story through extensive special effects work. The CGI railway station is a thing of gleaming art deco beauty (except for the dingy parts that Hugo calls home), which the director gleefully delights in exploring with a roving camera. It’s in the station that we meet some of the supporting characters and their stories, such as the cute flower girl (Emily Mortimer) who the inspector is secretly in love with (a fitting nod to the demi-god of the silent era, Charlie Chaplin, who is also given a brief cameo).
The 3D is used in some unexpected ways too. Footage from the silent era crops up towards the end, including a simple shot of people walking through a train station circa-1900. The third dimension brings the footage - and the past - to life in a way that should feel gimmicky but instead feels fresh and invigorating. Which is surely Scorsese’s mission in a nutshell.
The heart of the story is resolutely old-fashioned, and rightly so. Ben Kingsley is a marvel as the initially embittered old man whose pre-war career is slowly uncovered by Isabelle and Hugo, and it would be no surprise at all if a few supporting actor nominations were to head his way in 2012. If you’re left unmoved by the time he comes face to face with his past, you need to make sure you’re not an automaton yourself. Baron Cohen’s somewhat slapstick role never quite takes off in the way that it should, though he certainly brings a fearsome presence to the apparent villain of the tale. But the film lives or dies by its two young leads, and both Butterfield and Moretz are terrific: engaging and likeable, you can’t help but cheer them on. All credit then to Mr. Scorsese, who has combined the best of the old with the best of the new and delivered one of the year’s finest films.