When Martin Scorsese's point of departure for a film is personal, the result is always an outstanding movie. This is the case with Hugo, a family film with a feel-good warm glow that surely on the surface does not feel at all like a Scorsese picture, but one that harbors, at its core, a loving homage to the magic of film making, making it perhaps the most personal of all the films that he has directed in his brilliant career.
When young Marty was a kid growing up in New York's Little Italy, often his health did not allow him to play with the other neighborhood kids. He would observe the world from his Elizabeth street window, and fill notebooks with storyboards of imaginary films. As a child, he was already measuring reality through the frame of a window, similar to the way the camera eye composes a shot. When we first meet young Parisian orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) his big sad blue eyes are staring at the world from inside the giant clock in the large railway station in which he lives. His "Hunchback of Notre Dame" existence consists of winding the big clock to ensure that he will not be sent to an orphanage by the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), as well as stealing gears from a toy seller with a past (Ben Kingsley) in order to make a mechanical automaton -- a legacy from his dead father (Jude Law) -- come to life. As young Hugo begins to work for the mysterious toy seller he learns that the old bitter man is a very special person, none other than Georges Méliès the great film pioneer magician who between 1896 and 1913 made more than 500 short films including the classic "A Trip to the Moon" but who fell into bankruptcy and obscurity after the Great War. Before long, young Hugo and his pal Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) are on a mission to deliver Méliès (Isabelle's godfather) back from obscurity.
This is Mr. Scorsese's first 3-D film, and it finds him in a playful mood with his new toy, echoing the world of cinema right and left. His trademark moving camera, traditionally always on the prowl, here achieves a sense of depth that Alfred Hitchcock was able to capture in his one and only 3-D film Dial M for Murder. As a matter of fact, there are many homages to the Master in this film. The way that Hugo spies on the regulars that gather at the railway station reminds us of Jimmy Stewart looking out of his Rear Window. Even Hugo's dwelling inside the clock, with dozens of moving gears and mechanical parts, reminds us of the inner workings of a motion picture projector. The stairs that lead up to it bring us back to the Master by giving us a sense of Vertigo.
But when the movie flashes back to the end of the 19th century, that's when the real cinematic magic begins. Scorsese's recreation of the heyday of Georges Méliès and his wondrous, hand-tinted, theatrical and fantastical films is an unforgettable, loving homage to the time when the movies began. Ben Kingsley gives a memorable performance as Méliès, forgotten and wounded in his old age, but as a young man sunny, full of enthusiasm, and wide-eyed at the possibilities that this new medium can offer.
In many ways I picture Martin Scorsese sharing this enthusiasm when making this film. A work so different from the rest of his other works, and yet so close to his own heart and imagination. It might just become the movie that he will be best remembered for.