#38 — Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011)
Martin Scorsese has long been a more versatile filmmaker than he is given credit for. Much as everyone reveres the tales of thugs and gangsters (and I am among the dutifully reverential), Scorsese has ranged far and wide in his storytelling, always making his personal connection to the material as evident as neon lights on a darkened street. Even so, it initially seemed a wild departure when it was announced that the venerable director would preside over a family film, shot in 3D. Maybe a more clear marker of the project’s distance from Scorsese’s previous fare is the fact that it was initially intended to be the live-action feature directorial debut of Chris Wedge, the person behind Ice Age and Robots.
But it turns out Hugo is the perfect Scorsese film, and arguably the one that reflects his truest passions more resoundingly than any other. Yes, Hugo has many familiar trappings of light, unchallenging kiddie far, including the title character (Asa Butterfield), an orphaned urchin living surreptitiously in a train station, a sweet girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) for him to befriend and chastely pine after, and a clownish adult foe (Sacha Baron Cohen) who bedevils them with a villainous, Javert-like obsession with misguided justice. Scorsese, as skilled of a craftsman as U.S. cinema has ever known, handles the sprightly antics with chipper aplomb.
What distinguishes Hugo, though — what makes it a proper Scorsese film — is its intoxicating adoration of film history, so much so that at one point a cinema scholar (played by Michael Stuhlbarg, every wise director’s ace in the hole) ambles in to save the day. It turns out the toy store proprietor who occasionally grumps at Hugo is none other than Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), the visionary filmmaker behind A Trip to the Moon and other creative miracles from the dawn of cinema. In nineteen-thirties Paris, the time and place of the story, Méliès is almost entirely forgotten. In classic fashion, Hugo is about the rescue of a sad, kind boy. Reflecting Scorsese’s priorities, the film is even more clearly about the rescue of a legacy. By the end, Hugo’s successful quest to find a new family is ultimately secondary in satisfaction to Georges’s anointment as a pillar of French artistry.
The film is awash in Scorsese’s love for all the filmmakers and filmmaking that preceded him. I think it’s entirely possible that Scorsese never experienced any happier moments across his storied career than those when he oversaw recreations of Méliès’s sound stages. The affection is present in every bit of Hugo, as is Scorsese is transferring the shy, asthmatic boy he once was, transfixed and rescued by the movies that flickered before him, onto the screen like never before. A film that feels, on its surface, as distant from Scorsese as anything in his filmography instead becomes the work of art that, in its very soul, draws the attention viewer incredible close to his very being. In every way, Hugo represents the magic of movies, casting beautiful spells.