The movie Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese, is based on the award-winning book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick. Hugo is a charming movie that explores ideas ranging from the essence of time and memory to the history of movies. In addition to all of the fantastic human characters portrayed by a wonderful cast, the physical clockworks within the train station setting and a mysterious automaton also become important characters in the film.
The main character, Hugo, is convincingly played by Asa Butterfield. In the opening scene Hugo is looking through a large clock face down into a train station. We do not know who he is or why he is apparently inside of a clock. The scene is not in color, and the constant movement of the people in the train station, along with the movement of the clock hands, makes the opening look like an old-fashioned movie when each frame would flicker and move in a jerky kind of way. This scene alerts us to the importance of clocks and the passage of time in the movie. It also is a clue that old movies will play an important part within the mystery of this movie.
As the movie goes on we learn the mystery of Hugo’s story. Hugo has been orphaned and he is hiding out in the train station keeping the clocks running. He is avoiding detection by the train station security guard, played in a sinister way by Sacha Baron Cohen. In addition to keeping the station clocks running, Hugo is trying to restore an automaton that was left to him by his deceased father. An automaton is an early form of robot which was motorized by gears like a clock. Hugo is convinced that the automaton contains a secret message from his father — yet another mystery to solve. The automaton is also missing an important part, which is the key to winding the internal clockwork to make the robot run.
Hugo scavenges bits and pieces he finds throughout the station. He gets his best parts by pilfering from a cranky toy maker, Papa George, who has a shop in the station. Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of Papa George as a broken man with a frightening temper is simultaneously heart rending and terrifying. After several tense interactions, Papa George gives Hugo a job in his shop repairing toys.
Hugo befriends Isabel (played by Chloë Grace Moretz), the niece of the toy maker. Ms. Moretz portrays Isabel’s character as an adventurous young woman with heart, who loves to read and solve mysteries as much as Hugo. She is also Hugo’s “hero” in that she saves him from the wrath of Papa George. Together they discover the mystery of Papa George’s past and the tragedy that made him such a bitter old man. The character of Papa George is based on the historical filmmaker George Méliès, the first person to ever use special effects in movies.
One of the greatest things about Hugo is the acting. Asa Butterfield, as Hugo, captures the essence of a curious teenager who is trying to figure out how the world works. Ben Kingsley, as Papa George, masterfully represents an old man with demons he is trying to forget. Chloë Grace Moretz as an adventurous and bold type of girl will engage female audience members who might think this is a “guy” film. The special effects, the automaton, and the clockworks are so important to the story line that they can also be considered “characters” in the movie. One scene that I found particularly fantastic is a steam punk nightmare scene in which cogs and gears turn Hugo into an automaton. I really think that the special effects department does a grade A job. Additionally, the screen play itself is incredibly touching and fun.
One of the few problems I found was that the pacing, especially in the beginning, was too slow for my taste. Establishing each of the characters and their personal mystery was painstaking, but for me it was also tedious. For example, establishing why Hugo has an automaton, why he lives in the walls of the train station, why he keeps the clocks running takes a very long time. These are important details to move the story line forward since the answers to these questions unfold throughout the movie in interesting and dramatic ways. Nonetheless, I found the beginning too slow and detailed. Although this technique did increase my emotional investment in the character of Hugo, I think I would have been just as immersed in the story if it had moved along at a quicker pace.
Overall, I highly recommend renting or buying a copy of Hugo on DVD. I think it is a fantastic mystery movie that both boys and girls will enjoy.