A Review by Edward McNulty
The Station Inspector has chased Hugo up the stairs and into the clock tower
(c) 2012 Paramount Pictures
I always look forward to December as the month in which Hollywood studios release some of their best films of the year. This is true once again, with new December releases by two directors who have become icons for film lovers, Martin Scorsese and Stephen Spielberg. Each of their films provide movie magic for families.
Hugo came as a real surprise because it is based on Brian Selznick’s novel of the same title, one written for juveniles. What is the auteur of Taxi Driver and Mean Streets doing with a Dickensen story about a 12 year-old orphaned boy living in the dark recesses of the clock tower of a train station in Paris back in 1931? The answer comes only after we have been drawn into the escapades of Hugo who is attempting to survive living on his own while restoring a marvelous automaton his horologist father had been working on just before his death in a fire.
Through a series of events Hugo and Isabella, a girl who becomes his friend and accomplice, learn that George Melies, the depressed owner of the train station’s toy shop and the girl’s guardian, pioneered the film industry. Scorsese, a passionate film preservationist, treats us to a visual history that begins with the re-enactment of the 1895 public showing in Paris of the very first films by the Lumiere brothers. Among them was Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, which created a sensation, the audience leaping to their feet thinking the train was actually rushing toward them from the screen. Present in that small audience (just 33 paying customers) is Georges, a magician who becomes fascinated by the illusion of motion on the screen, something far greater than his magic shows. Securing his own camera, he builds the world’s first movie studio, almost entirely made of glass so as to catch the sunlight. We then see him making his films, including the famous A Trip to the Moon in which the cannon-propelled space ship hits the man in the Moon right in the eye. By trial and error Melies creates special effects, showing that film is a unique art form capable of creating illusions that seem to be magic. All in all, Melies made over 500 films before public taste changed, leaving him bankrupt and depressed by the loss of his studio and career. Thus the film develops the twin themes of the boy trying to fix the automaton and also the life of a broken man.
We are also treated to short clips from other masters of the silent era, including a clip in which Buster Keaton, sitting on the driving rod of a steam engine, is then lifted up when the engine starts up. There is a shot of the famous Babylonia set from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. The longest excerpt is the famous scene from Safety Last which we see this through the eyes of the children when Hugo sneaks Isabella into a theater after she tells him that she has never been allowed to see a movie. Comedian Harold Lloyd is stuck out on a ledge high above a city street, and then slipping, he dangles from the minute hand of a huge clock. Scorsese pays homage to this classic scene when Hugo, being pursued again by the Station Inspector and his dog, rushes up the stairs of the clock tower, climbs through the face of the giant clock to hide, slips and grabs onto the minute hand of the clock. High above the streets of Paris he hangs on in great peril until the Inspector gives up the search and leaves.
Martin Scorsese’s love of film permeates the whole work. Hugo is the kind of film that makes going to the movies (and writing about them) the magical experience that Georges Melies and talented filmmakers ever since have intended it to be. It is truly a treat for the entire family! As to Steven Spielberg and his marvelous new film War Horse, I will have to wait until next time to describe it—most impressive are its many moments of grace and humaneness in the midst of the turmoil of war. If you love Black Beauty and The Black Stallion you probably will embrace this film also.
(A longer review is avialable at the wuthor's website www.visualparables.net)