Several years ago, I had guests over that included several rambunctious kids that were weaned on a diet of first-person shooter games and Pixar. I popped in a DVD of Méliès short films. The kids sat quiet —fixated on The Man with the Rubber Head (1901). When it was over, they asked to watch it again. There’s something truly magical about the shorts of Georges Méliès (1861 – 1938). I’ve only seen 15 or so of the shorts, but these 100-year old films hold up well even today. A Trip to the Moon (1902) is probably the most famous:
Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation Hugo (2011) of Brian Selznick’s children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007) might be the director’s finest film. It’s certainly one of his most entertaining, and his passion for film-making and the history of cinema is evident in every single shot, from the sweeping opening title sequence to appreciative scenes with Sir Christopher Lee as the book merchant Monsieur Labisse. Hugo is not a horror film. It’s not science-fiction. There are adventure elements. For once I compliment the use of CGI. Bravo. The film is pure joy.
What a cast! Sir Ben Kingsley plays an aging toy merchant with a small shop in a Paris train station, circa early 1930’s. Young orphan Hugo Cabret, played brilliantly by Asa Butterfield, lives in the labyrinthine catacombs of the station, winding clocks and stealing croissants. He also robs the toy merchant of windup toys, which Hugo cannibalizes for gears and springs for a secret project he is working on. The station is patrolled by an inept, stiff-legged and ornery inspector, hilariously played by Sacha Baron Cohen. Hugo constantly tries to stay one up on the inspector. These scenes are Chaplinesque. Cohen understands physical humor and his presence brings just a faint touch of Peter Sellers to the film. Eventually young Hugo gets caught by the toy merchant, and then the adventure unfolds.
One of my favorite new actors is Chloë Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass, Let Me In), and she is perfectly cast as Isabelle, who befriends Hugo. Together they work in concert trying to solve a mystery that is pure cinematic delight. In an appreciation of movies, Hugo reminds me at times of Cinema Paradiso (1988), but Hugo is really not like anything Scorsese has ever done. I almost wonder if the director should’ve funneled his energy into making family films and big budget productions. I went into Hugo not knowing anything about the movie, the book, or the plot. I’m thankful for films like Hugo. I sat in wonder, fascinated by this modern family classic with clocks, a young hero, an automaton, mysterious film makers, magic and 90-year old Christopher Lee delivering in one of his most memorable roles as a compassionate and literate book seller. Hugo. Best film 2011. Made my top 50 List.