The ten-minute introduction to the movie Hugo, before the title card even reminds you what you’re at the cinema to see, is an absolute popcorn-gobbling delight of special effects. As we follow the titular hero through the labyrinthine pathways that make up the landscape of his home—living behind the walls at a Parisian train station—we pass through cogs and pendulums and down slides and up rickety stairs, all merging seamlessly together to create an entirely new and beautiful world. Seeing this in 3D is even more incredible, and is an immediate way to engage your audience so that they’re staring slack-jawed with glee within moments.
The world of young boy Hugo (Asa Butterfield) himself is not so lovely. It’s 1931, and, orphaned after the death of his clockmaker father (Jude Law) in a museum fire and sent to live with his alcoholic uncle, his life goes from quiet contentment to ruination. Unable to go to school, running the station’s clocks is his only job, but one he must do perfectly in case anyone notices that as the movie begins, he is now alone, his uncle having abandoned him. Apart from the clocks, Hugo spends his time tending to a broken automaton his father found in a museum, trying to find parts for it—or to steal them from the station’s toymaker, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley) out of view of the orphan-catching Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). After an altercation with Georges that sees him lose his father’s notebook, a precious memento that also holds the clues to fixing the writing-robot that is his father’s only legacy, he thinks all is doomed. But wait! Because it’s an adventure story (and a self-referential one at that), an effervescent girl named Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz, adorable) is waiting in the wings to befriend him, even though her guardian is Georges himself. And between them, they may just hold the not entirely metaphorical key to everyone’s angst—Hugo’s emotional and mechanical problems, and the secret her godfather has been keeping for years.
Hugo is a love letter to cinema itself: not only in its visuals, but in the subject matter and in the characters themselves. Hugo’s father adored cinema and took his son to films, whereas Georges has never let Isabelle see a movie in her life. There is a glorious line to make all movie-lovers sigh, as Hugo tells Isabelle about the first time his father had seen a movie: “He said it was like seeing his dreams in the middle of the day.” The history of film is touched on as well, as the first one shown—a train pulling into a station—causes the entire audience to shriek and run as the train barrels towards the camera. Connected to it all is cinematic genius Georges Melies, whom you might remember from a particularly referenced and adored film scene where the moon cops a rocket to the eye. Any movie about movies is one that floats my boat, and this is lovingly rendered in every way, where the recreations of hundred-year-old special effects still have the power to amaze, and the loss of film can cause the loss of much more personally.
Quirky French touches abound, as the station’s other occupants—flower-seller Lisette (Emily Mortimer), the object of the Station Inspector’s awkward affections; cafe owner Madame Emile (Frances de la Tour, one of three Harry Potter actors in the film—she played the French giantess); and newspaperman Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths, second Potter-person, Uncle Vernon) dance around each other and create a lightness and sweetness that the movie’s occasionally sad moments need. Moretz is a delight as an enthusiastic counterpart to Butterfield’s quiet grimness, and Cohen does a wonderful job making the initially dastardly Inspector a sympathetic character (it does take a while to warm to the man, though. What kind of jerk throws orphans in a cage?)
However I couldn’t really bond with Hugo himself, a character with a genuinely sorrowful backstory but who in Butterfield was unable to sell me on any of his emotions or the reasoning behind some of his actions. Sadly, this made him one of the least interesting characters in the movie for me. Papa Georges’ backstory, while interesting and visually entrancing, is not quite enough payoff for the build-up surrounding it—so I enjoyed the movie but still left the theatre feeling slightly unfulfilled. I do recall feeling the same way when I read the book as well: that I was hoping for a dramatic reveal and was underwhelmed. Characters frequently did the frustrating trope where they don’t explain their actions, choosing silence over logical discussion and making the movie stretch out into devastation when it could have been remedied by a nice chat over a cup of tea.
But it’s still a fun film, and kudos to director Martin Scorsese for doing to 3D what the mechanically brilliant young Hugo does to a mechanical mouse—injecting it with something new and wonderful. I give it eight out of twelve o’clock.
In Australia, Hugo is released January 12.