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Hugo (2011)

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

Have you thought of the world as a machine? For me, the question carries connotations of a cold, heartless world of isolation and exploitation. Embedded within Hugo’s exploration of other matters of the heart, the film uniquely explores “machine nature” from different angles, finding there a surprising amount of warmth and care. But I get ahead of myself by placing such emphasis on this aspect of Hugo — the film has much more than this in the way of excellent qualities.

Hugo Cabret, an orphan, lives in 1930s Paris. Afraid that he will be placed in an orphanage and left to rot, he stays out of sight, continuing his father’s job of maintaining and running the clocks in a train station. When not doing that, he is either surviving by pilfering from food vendors in the station or working to repair an old humanoid machine that his father had found. To supply his repair work, he also steals from a toy vendor, Georges Méliès. One day, Georges catches Hugo, threatening to turn him in to the station police, whereupon he would be summarily tossed into the orphanage. Upon Hugo’s pleading, Georges relents, veritably forcing Hugo into working in the toy shop, beginning a tenuous relationship of tension and discovery. Running time: 126 min.

In Hugo, Martin Scorsese masterfully delivers on multiple fronts at once. It is a film for children and adults, an homage to film and filmmakers, a tale of danger and mystery, an appreciation of the written word, and a story of loss and redemption. How do we pursue “what we were made to do” and how do we live when we lose the ability to do that? What do we cling to? What perspective can we gain that might free our hearts to recover? In our struggle to be who we were made to be and to grasp its significance, how do we view the cold, impersonal world we inhabit? On our journeys through these perils, will we risk allowing ourselves to have close co-travelers? Upon reflection, such questions are there in Hugo yet, to Scorsese’s great credit, you may well not realize it as you are engrossed in the film.

The filmcraft is top-notch. Hugo is an intense, determined, and courageous character, very well played by Asa Butterfield. Scorsese’s marvelous direction gives us a film of great cinematic depth and focus with rich visuals, intimate characters, and strong heart. The ever-present machinery in Hugo provides an evocative backdrop — enough to make me go against my dislike of the cliché and say that the machinery is “a character in the film.” The film’s sound department deserves an extra shout out for its subtle reinforcement of this effect.

As you might expect by now, I find Hugo to be extremely worth the time. Some parts might be too intense for young children or those sensitive to scenes of peril, but on the whole, Hugo is light in such regards. Its depth of heart is broadly accessible and the film works in multiple ways, so I think it a wide audience can appreciate it.

Scenes of peril are the strongest content in Hugo. There are three or more situations where someone's life is in serious danger. There are a couple of fairly well-veiled references to adultery. Old film clips contain scenes of danger and peril.

  • Director: Martin Scorsese
  • Screenplay: John Logan, based on Brian Selznick's novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret"
  • Leads:Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Chloë Grace Moretz, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Jude Law, Michael Stuhlbarg
  • Cinematography: Robert Richardson
  • Music: Howard Shore

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