One of the side effects of Martin Scorsese being one of America’s greatest living directors is that every new picture is viewed under the magnifying glass of greatness. Is Hugo another in a line of great movies, or is it a muddled attempt at trying to do something out of his reach? Is it an old man picture, with modest pleasures but a looser grasp? Those seem to be the categories the film’s critics slotted the film into, with many adults deciding that Scorsese failed at directing a film for children, to which the only evidence is anecdotal. But the film is good, possibly great (time will tell), and the most engaging and engaged picture Scorsese has made in a while.

The Players:

The Plot:

Hugo Cabret (Butterfield) is an orphan who lives in a Paris train station where he gets his independence by making sure all the clocks are still working. He meets George (Kingsley) – a toymaker – when he’s caught stealing parts. Hugo has entered into thievery mostly to stay alive, but also to repair the automaton that his late father (Law) rescued, which he thinks holds a secret his father wants him to have. It will only work with a key, one he finds around the neck of fast friend Isabelle (Moretz), and the ward of George. George and Hugo bond over Hugo’s gift for repair, but George holds many secrets that he and Isabelle help to unravel.

The Good:

  • Martin Scorsese: Being known as a master director helps attune one’s awareness. Which begs the rose question about any other name. This doesn’t feel as distinctly “Marty” as Casino, but he’s also played with a certain austerity before in pictures like Age of Innocence, so this isn’t such a stretch. But from the opening tracking shot (with digital assist) to the wooshing camera around Hugo’s workplace, Scorsese cues the viewer to pay attention early on, and shows that he’s in complete control. And there’s something to be said for a director with vision, in an era where many filmmakers fall back on masters and TV framing. But with Scorsese, you expect nothing less.
  • For the Love of Cinema: Though the IMDb ruins it, there is a reveal later in the picture about one of the characters who was involved in silent cinema. The film then turns into a story about the origins of film, and the role this character played in shaping cinematic fantasies. And though Hugo is much more grounded than that work, it communicates the joy of that cinema just the same, and how movies can be escapist in the best possible sense. In that way Hugo is a better appreciation of the silent era (and loves it more) than The Artist.
  • Gentle Journey: The story of an orphan who seeks to get closer to lost parents is familiar terrain of young adult literature, and of animated cinema (how many Disney films feature dead parents?) And though that is the starting point, the film creates a microcosm world in the train station. There’s the nasty-seeming cop (Cohen), who is ashamed of his wounded leg, but wants to romance a flower seller (Mortimer). There’s an older couple who fancy each other, but her dog keeps biting him. And then there’s the old book seller (Christopher Lee), whose frightening exterior reveals a much warmer heart. In that way Hugo is about the harmony that comes from a happy community, and this may be Scorsese’s warmest film. And though some of his attempts at a period or genre mimicry don’t work perfectly (New York, New York and Cape Fear come to mind), Scorsese nails this one.

The Bad:

  • Indifference: The worst thing about this film is that it’s not going very wide this weekend, and it doesn’t appear to have been marketed that strongly. It’s a weird film in that it takes its time (kids films that aren’t Potter-ish run around 100 minutes, this is over two hours), but it’s also a very interesting film that can’t be pigeon-holed readily. It is an orphan’s adventure, but then it becomes something more. If Martin Scorsese had directed a gangster picture, it would open big and people would be raring to watch, but because he’s directing a kids film, it’s possible this could get lost in the Holiday shuffle.

Overall:

Scorsese’s love of cinema glows bright throughout Hugo, but that’s not the only reason why it charms. There’s heart and characters, comedy and adventure, all of which work well.  Hugo is an ode to both assembled families and silent films, Hugo is a heartfelt love letter.

Rating: 9/10

Hugo opens November 23.

Trailer: