Trains and the cinema go together like horses and cave paintings. As soon as humans were able to show motion, we chose to show trains. And from our first interaction with locomotives on celluloid – the Lumiére Brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat in 1895, which, perhaps apocryphally, made audiences jump out of their seats in fear – until this moment, with Martin Scorsese’s 3-D fantasy, Hugo, there have been dreamers and keepers of the dream.
Hugo, which renders that very Lumiére film in the present-day’s most advanced technology (along with countless other great moments in early film history), is about both the dreamers and the keepers and a masterful clarion call for new ones like them from a man who’s been both.
Asa Butterfield (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) plays Hugo Cabret, a wide-eyed boy whose clockmaker father (Jude Law) dies unexpectedly, leaving the kid to be raised by his drunken Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), who keeps the clocks running at a Paris train station seemingly modeled after the Paris Montparnasse. Rather than be gathered up as just another orphan and given over to authorities by the arch-villainous (yet, at times, Chaplin-esque) Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), Hugo lives in the station’s walls, stealing croissants and milk to get by.
One day he meets a luminous, educated young woman, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), who introduces him to the colorful characters at the station that he’s spent so long avoiding. One of them is her de facto papa, a cranky toy-shop keeper named Georges (Ben Kingsley). Georges, Hugo discovers, has a mysterious connection to the broken clockwork automaton Hugo’s dad left behind, which Hugo believes holds a message from his late father.
The maze of connections between Isabelle, the station, the automaton, the toy maker and everything in between leads Hugo on a magical journey that’s surprising and touching at every turn. Without spoiling too much, Georges used to be a dreamer, and the more Hugo digs up, the more broken Georges becomes. But Hugo, a preternaturally insightful, brilliant young man – though not in a cutesy or indie-precious way – and plucky Isabelle get through their days by believing in something larger in the universe, something that connects everyone and gives them purpose.
One can practically hear Scorsese, the young asthmatic Catholic in Little Italy who fell deeply in love with the movies and never looked back, communicating here. Hugo’s best throughline harkens back to those early days. Hugo finds that Isabelle has never seen a movie, so they sneak into Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last!, and squirm excitedly at Lloyd’s death-defying sequence in which he hangs from a clock tower high above the city. I found myself newly appreciative of how frightening the effect still is, and of Hugo and Isabelle’s thrilled reactions. The punchline comes in Hugo’s climax, however, when Hugo himself hangs Lloyd-like from his own clock tower. Scorsese, 3-D camera in hand, swoops down over the cityscape and – you got me – I gripped my seat firmly. All these years later, movies can still transport us.
That’s Scorsese’s perfectly clear message with Hugo, especially the second half, when a large part of Hugo’s mission involves, of all things, film preservation. (Scorsese is the founder of preservation nonprofits like the Film Foundation and World Cinema Foundation.) But rather than a cheap plea, Hugo shows, not tells. By inextricably linking our experience now with that of audiences past, he draws a direct line from those early dreamers to the need for today’s keepers. It’s a deeply personal work that doesn’t preach, and a majestic love letter to the cinema.