[Screen It]


(2011) (Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley) (PG)

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Drama: An orphan who lives in a 1930s era Paris train station tries to fix a broken automaton and ends up involved in a mystery that will change the lives of those around him.
It's the 1930s and Hugo Cabret (ASA BUTTERFIELD) is an orphan who lives in the Paris train station, stealing food and small mechanical parts when not perpetually winding the station's many massive clocks and watching the various workers there go about their daily lives. They include newspaper vendor Monsieur Frick (RICHARD GRIFFITHS) who's sweet on cafe owner Madame Emilie (FRANCES DE LA TOUR), while florist Lisette (EMILY MORTIMER) can't help but notice that the Station Inspector (SACHA BARON COHEN) is interested in her.

But he's more focused on capturing any orphans, with the help of his Doberman, who cross his path, and Hugo repeatedly has to avoid the man and his dog while going about his daily routine. That includes stealing the smaller mechanical parts Hugo needs to try and fix a broken automaton that once belonged to his late father (JUDE LAW). Hugo is eventually caught by toy shop owner Georges (BEN KINGSLEY) who threatens to burn the boy's sketchbook and then won't give it back if Hugo doesn't work for him in order to pay off the value of what he's previously stolen.

Young Isabelle (CHLOE GRACE MORETZ), who just so happens to be Georges' godchild -- and lives with him and his wife, Mama Jeanne (HELEN McCRORY) -- decides to help Hugo since this will be her first real adventure outside of reading books provided to her by librarian Monsieur Labisse (CHRISTOPHER LEE). While working on the automaton, they learn through a series of events that Isabelle's godfather is none other than famed filmmaker Georges Melies, a shock to author Rene Tabard (MICHAEL STUHLBARG) who believed, along with the rest of the world, that the man died during WWI.

As Hugo and Isabelle dig deeper for the truth, they come to realize that everyone has a purpose in life, including trying to help fix people who might be broken themselves.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Nowadays, people and even quite young kids take movies and all of their latest technological and visual achievements for granted. But it wasn't always that way, especially back at the advent of light first passing through celluloid to show people things they had never seen before. While much of that old footage looks quite antiquated nowadays, I can only imagine the reaction it garnered from audiences a century ago.

And that was especially true for director Georges Melies. A former magician turned filmmaker, he recreated his stage magic on film, employing new techniques to delight, mesmerize and quite likely also terrorize some impressionable young minds. In fact, such viewing experiences no doubt inspired a new generation of filmmakers who were greatly influenced as kids seeing that sort of magic and dream-like worlds up on the screen.

That, and a great deal more is the subject of "Hugo," director Martin Scorsese's loving and fairly brilliant look back at the early days of filmmaking. The irony, presumably quite intentional -- and coming on the heels of a study stating that digital projectors will finally surpass old film ones in use early next year -- is that the director is presenting his film in the latest technological trend of 3D.

Yet, rather than doing so as a gimmick or, worse yet, as a simple means of increasing ticket prices to generate some bonus box office revenue, the acclaimed director of films such as "Taxi Driver," "Goodfellas" and "Gangs of New York" uses the visual format in what's arguably the most impressive presentation yet. And that's not just taking but essentially immersing us into the world of Melies (a good Ben Kingsley), his goddaughter (a delightful Chloe Grace Moretz) and the young orphan (Asa Butterfield, delivering a terrific performance) who drives this enchanting if sometimes occasionally slow and a bit long tale.

If the credits and other press materials didn't list Scorsese as the director, one would be hard pressed to guess he was the mastermind behind the film. Yet, with that knowledge, it's easy to see the director using this as something of a very loose autobiographical tale of his early life and love of film in general. While he was born roughly a decade after the story -- penned by John Logan, adapting Brian Selznick's "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" -- is set, he was obviously inspired by the movies at a young age, much like his protagonist.

Set mostly in a Paris train station in the 1930s, the story follows the life of young Hugo who lives in the vast building, constantly winding the various clocks while living in the inner workings of the structure and its various mechanical pieces. The film is all about machinery, be it those clocks, the broken automaton his late father (Jude Law, seen in flashback) was working on, the mechanical leg brace worn by the station's head of security (Sacha Baron Cohen as the "villain," albeit with a soft spot for the flower lady played by Emily Mortimer), the wind-up toys in a station shop, and -- of greatest thematic essence -- how everyone is a cog of one sort or another in this big, interconnected system called life.

The latter gives the film its heartbeat (revolving around the notion that people without purpose are like broken machines and need fixing). That also holds true for the titular boy needing to fix the automaton (an early robot of sorts working off of internal gears) that he believes contains an important message from his late father. It does, of course, although not literally, and all of that comes together and makes more sense as the story unfolds.

The whole thing is magical and dreamlike, and while it's being promoted as a kid and/or family movie (due to, I suppose, having kids as the stars), I imagine adults -- and especially those with an appreciation or love of early film pioneers and their work -- will admire the film the most and certainly get the most out of it. But there is enough to keep more attentive kids engaged, including some action and chase scenes, mystery and intrigue, and little bits of comedy (albeit in more of an old timey French manner than what contemporary comedies routinely offer nowadays).

The production design is fabulous, the Parisian score exquisite, and the performances from everyone involved are all top-notch. And for once, the use of 3D is done right. That's not only in terms of impressive cinematographic feats (some of which are quite fun to behold, such as the initial fly-through tour of the train station as well as seamlessly segueing from a picture of an old film in a book to moving images of the same in a movie theater), but also in fully immersing us into this highly personable tale.

While I'm not sure how I'd feel on a second pass of watching it (due to some fairly slow passages and some length that could have been truncated), the first time around is quite a charming, engaging and entertaining delight about movies of yesteryear and their effect on those who made and saw them. "Hugo" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 21, 2011 / Posted November 23, 2011

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