The Invention of Magic

Hugo (November 23, 2011)     5/5

Directed by Martin Scorsese (Paramount Pictures)

Once upon a time, a boy looked outside the windows of his city home, and stared in awe upon the wonders of Little Italy. He was fascinated by how it worked, what processes shaped the happenings he was able to observe from his viewpoint, safe behind a sheet of glass. It was like a dream. This is what young Martin Scorsese would also observe in the movies, a medium that would transfer the magic he saw around him and project it onto a different kind of screen. Hugo, the veteran director’s attempt at a family-friendly adventure, may be his best film in a very long time, a 3D, sensory experience that captures that magic and implants it straight into our hearts.

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) also looks out upon the world around him, but is enamored by the bright lights of Paris, rather than New York City. Circa 1931, Hugo lives life in fascination of “how things work,” a passion that only became stronger when Hugo’s father (Jude Law), a clockmaker, died in a museum fire. The boy, who was taken as an apprentice by his alcoholic uncle (Ray Winstone), now spends his days in between the walls of a Paris train station, caring for the clocks each day (as well as stealing food from bakers within the station), all while trying to dodge capture by Inspecter Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), a railway patrolman who’s favorite activity is to round up orphans like our hero. Hugo lives this way because his uncle has disappeared, but also lives with the hope that he will not get rounded up by the orphanage, so long as the clocks run on time each day.

Meanwhile, the lonely boy works on a dream project that he and his father never finished – the repair a broken automaton, a small, mechanical man that when fully working, will be able to physically write with a pen. The only problem is that Hugo is missing something – a heart-shaped key that is meant to be inserted into the metal man’s back. Soon, Hugo meets another orphan, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Mortez), who may have the solution. Not only that, but her godfather (Ben Kingsley) is a man who Hugo frequently steals spare parts from, a toy shop owner in the station. Neither knows that Georges Melies was once one of the great filmmakers, or that the love Hugo’s father had for the movies was inspired by the man who basically invented onscreen imagination.

The film, based on the children’s novel by Brian Selznick, will appeal to kids, adults, and movie-lovers alike. Scorsese uses 3D to accentuate so much detail, making Paris come alive in much the same way as James Cameron made Pandora come alive. It is truly one of the best uses of the medium, especially when in the film’s third act, we are shown much footage from the birth of cinema, Scorsese proving that the original reaction to moving images can remain the same for us today. Astonishment is not yet dead. But Scorsese remains a traditionalist. Hugo features many of his signature tracking shots, continually displaying seamless imagery of a world where so much is happening, yet placing our focus and emotions in the characters we are meant to connect with. Butterfield and Mortez are terrific as the two leads, portraying loneliness and eagerness for adventure in ways that only children can.

The heartbroken Melies is also played to perfection by Ben Kingsley, who shows us a wounded man who can only be healed by the wonder these kids are just now experiencing. Also wounded (literally) is Sacha Baron Cohen’s inspecter, who hilariously steals each scene he’s in. But of course, we soon learn that his ruthlessness was inspired by hurt, and he becomes as human as our protagonist. I found Inspecter Gustav to be very similar to Gaston Modot’s gamekeeper character in Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece, The Rules of the Game. And in clear contrast to how World War II was used to signify the end of paralyzing, upper class French society in that film, Scorsese uses World War I in this film to convey the sad end of a time when invention spurred freeflowing imagination. However, it wouldn’t end for good. Because as indicated by the growth of film into a way of life, there were plenty of boys like Hugo in 1931, inspired to take the reigns of the lucid dreams we so heartily watch again and again.

Although there is not a considerably high body count in Hugo, this is the same type of movie Scorsese has always made. In the tradition of his possibly greatest film, Raging Bull, the director utilizes the latest technology to shape a film of classical pretense. Here, he is obviously inspired by French cinema, crafting quite a poetic piece of work. And that is just the point. In the film, Hugo does the same, re-enacting that famous scene with Harold Lloyd in Safety Last!, upon seeing it in the theater not too long before. The colorful, neo-classical feel is also similar to many of Scorsese’s recent films, most clearly to The Aviator, a movie that was also about the process of filmmaking, among many other things. And although the second half of Hugo may be a little too direct in its approach for conveying the importance of film preservation, it fits nicely into the fanciful style that Scorsese has set for the entire film. It also couldn’t be more correct. The final scenes will bring tears to your eyes, accompanied by Howard Shore’s sweeping score – the best I’ve heard this year.

As Hugo states – “I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason.” I hope that with the many children watching movies today, a good portion will fall in love with the cinematic perfection mastered by ones like Hugo. Some will find their purpose in any number of professions, but others, like myself, will always be drawn to the one where dreams are made, and in both Hugo and Scorsese’s case, the one you didn’t realize was on the other side of the window.

It is both clever and magical how each beloved character in Hugo finds a purpose. But most importantly, it is about how important it is to maintain that purpose. Scorsese has done so not only in his undying dedication to film preservation, but also in the ones he continues to make. Because with the movies around, sometimes loneliness can begin to heal. In films, we are not only presented with incredible adventures, but also things that can change our perspective, the way we think and feel, or even the purpose we have in our lives. Yet it takes our own initiative to reach the potential of the ideas that can sometimes be sparked, not only in the movies, but all around us. The key is heart-shaped for a reason.



  1. Completely agree with your review. I was so engulfed in the magic of Hugo that I nearly fell asleep, what an incredible film.

    I love your site, keep up the good work, I’ll be sure to return 😀

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