Last week a friend took her two young daughters to the premiere of Happy Feet Two and described their reaction, by the eighth or ninth musical number, as equivalent to Kramer's involuntary seizures whenever he heard Mary Hart's voice on Seinfeld. (She didn't actually put it in those terms; I'm taking creative license with her ordeal.) To the small crowd of parents and children at the screening of Hugo attended by yours truly: I salute you. The best family films -- the ones capable of stirring a child's imagination -- are invariably ignored, so merely showing up for a Martin Scorsese kiddie flick is admirable enough. Yet as the movie unfolded, I became distracted by the fact that nobody was distracting me. No fidgeting, running up and down the aisles, asking loudly if the movie's over yet, or other instances of acting-out when a film ostensibly made for kids fails to hold their attention. Just rows of mesmerized faces gazing up quietly at the screen. Arguably more than any other movie on his resume (and this is saying plenty), Scorsese made Hugo for himself. Yet it's the most generous personal filmmaking imaginable, the kind of open-hearted work that lets everyone in.
His achievement was nowhere near apparent from the trailers, which slapped together unrelated moments from the film in such a haphazard manner that the joke going around (which I shared in) was that Hugo looked like Scorsese's "Chris Columbus movie" (just as The Aviator was his "Ron Howard movie," as Steven Santos would put it). I'm not sure if misplaced expectations are what lured in the audience, and I'm half-expecting an irate moviegoer somewhere across the land to file a lawsuit against the movie for "not being like Harry Potter," just as one great intellect is currently suing Drive for "not being The Fast and the Furious." Among all movie audiences, the "family film" crowd may be the worst, because their unvarying taste for stultifying, milquetoast crap is stunting the next generation's concept of what movies can be. Parents like these are killing movies for the sake of two hours of silence, except that -- they never learn -- children get vocal and restless when they're having a bad time. Whether the Hugo audience are fans of the book (The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick) or if they got suckered in by a film that ended up being something quite other than the bad time the previews promised, they were clearly engaged by a kind of magic considerably less literal than the wizards and Dark Lords and Quidditch matches to which they're accustomed. I enjoyed the last handful of the Potter series, but Hugo offers a very different -- and more substantial -- form of enchantment.
Similarly Scorsese himself once said, "I love Steven's (Spielberg's) movies, but I don't think everyone should have to make them." With Hugo, Scorsese hasn't made a Spielberg movie any more than he's crafted a Chris Columbus joint, but he's learned a few things from his friend and employs a few classic Spielbergian touches. The story is told almost entirely from young orphan Hugo's (Asa Butterfield's) point-of-view, and as he and his new gal-pal Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) jaunt through the 1930s-era train station where the majority of the action takes place, the camera keeps up from behind at eye-level, with most of the grown-ups depicted like many of the adult characters in E.T. -- only as high as their torsos. Visually, Scorsese makes the train-station a potentially threatening place, yet the atmosphere is never oppresive. Between the clocks that Hugo, living secretly within the walls, surreptitiously keeps running to the toy and flower shops to the coming-and-going locomotives themselves, Scorsese makes the real seem magical, rather than trying to persuade us that magic is real.
Much of this is accomplished via 3-D, and while Hugo is only the third movie I've seen to use the extra dimension, it is easily the most effective. Avatar was an entertaining 3-D "experience" that barely disguised a mediocre movie, a mask quickly removed once the movie came to DVD; whereas Cave of Forgotten Dreams found justifiable use for the technology in a documentary that made cave paintings tactile, seemingly touchable. The only problematic moments in that film were when Herzog moved the camera up and down the mountainside, and Scorsese's technique occasionally encounters the same obstacle. Always a purveyor of restless, roving camerawork, Scorsese stumbles a bit whenever Sacha Baron Cohen's station inspector gives chase to Hugo. The image gets fleetingly blurry. In frenetic scenes like these the 3-D can't keep up with Scorsese's energy; it's better at drawing out the details of static framing (which makes me think Kubrick would have been a master at it). For the most part, Scorsese seems to realize this. Whenever Hugo stops running, the imagery opens up around him -- as when pieces of paper with artistic sketches float around a room -- and when he ventures into the snow-dappled Parisian streets (actually a set, but an evocative one) the movie looks breathtaking.
Scorsese has always done unsung work with child actors, and while I wouldn't rate Butterfield and Moretz's performances on par with Jodie Foster's in Taxi Driver, Christopher Serrone's as young Henry Hill in Goodfellas, or Gyurme Tethong's in Kundun, each comes through in crucial roles. I suspect I may even be underrating Butterfield, who has to carry the movie and manages to play an orphaned boy who has lost his parents without a trace of self-pity. Moretz, having already made an impression before turning fourteen in Let Me In and Kick-Ass, seems to be putting a precocious Hermione Granger spin on her lines, but she connects with Butterfield, and has a lovely scene when Hugo takes her to see her first movie. A movie, Hugo explains, quoting his late father, "is like a dream in the middle of the day," and the rapt expression on Moretz's face mirrors the visages on the kids looking up at her in the audience.
John Logan's screenplay has a pleasing symmetry, and Scorsese, demonstrating an imaginative agility he hasn't shown in ages, finds visual rhymes that echo throughout the film. The famous Harold Lloyd clock scene finds its double with Hugo later, as does a recreation of the Lumiere brothers's silent film depicting a train arriving at a station (a sequence that causes members of its initial 1895 audience to jump out of the way). He also attentively brings a few key adult characters into play, a quartet of station employees with parallel thwarted love affairs. In one, Richard Griffiths's shambling advances on Frances de la Tour are impeded by her protective yapping long-haired dauchshund; in the other, Emily Mortimer's flower saleswoman attracts the attention of Cohen's inspector, impeded by his own self-consciousness regarding a leg damaged in the First World War. Sacha Baron Cohen walks a tricky line in Hugo. In the previews, he looked like he auditioning for the next Pink Panther movie, and early on some of his slapstick antics fall flat. Yet the movie needs his energy, and eventually Cohen's mediocre Peter Sellers imitation turns into a good one, the type of Sellers performance that weaves pathos into farcical physical shtick. His train inspector is an adversary but ultimately not a villain, much to our relief. He owns a dog too, an aggressive (and expressive) doberman pinscher. Yes, this is a Scorsese movie with doggie reaction shots, but they're funny doggie reaction shots, namely one that underscores how much Cohen and the doberman resemble one another.
Pauline Kael believed that, unless your name was Luis Bunuel, filmmakers got worse as they grew older. Later she would make exceptions for Robert Altman and John Huston, but Scorsese's work largely fell out of her favor after she was one of his staunchest champions early in his career. "After Taxi Driver," I once heard him say in person, receiving an award, "she never liked anything I ever did afterward -- other than The Last Waltz, Life Lessons, and The Last Temptation of Christ." That's a pretty big "other than," but it's true that for the most part Kael went cold. She missed his collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio over the last decade but that's probably for the best. Of the four to date, I found two of them frustrating (Gangs of New York, Shutter Island), one mediocre (The Aviator), and a fourth watchable (The Departed) only because Leo didn't have to shoulder the load. (Distracting us in that film were a lively performance from Mark Wahlberg and an embarrassing one from Jack Nicholson.) When Ben Kingsley, late in Shutter Island, turns into Exposition Man and breaks the fake gun in half, I groaned at Scorsese's contempt for the material and the audience. He seemed to have given up drawing from anything resembling actual life experience; he was lost in Movieland.
Hugo is even more of an artificial world than Shutter Island -- and Kingsley's performance as Georges Melies, like all of his work, I find, hits the wrong notes -- but Scorsese puts his lifeblood into it so that it feels like everything he's wanted to say about what cinema means to him. The movie is a joyous reconciliation of life and art, a demonstration of how technology can enable us to live -- or, for the neglected and forgotten, to live again. Years ago Terrence Rafferty, in his review of The Player, hailed the then 67-year-old Altman as "the youngest filmmaker in America." Martin Scorsese, who turned 69 last week, has now staked that claim.