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The Ageless Innocence

MOVIE REVIEW
Hugo (2011)

Hugo-asa-butterfield
Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures

One would expect any hardcore Scorsese fan to greet “Hugo” with some measure of trepidation: Has Martin Scorsese finally lost it? Could this PG-rated 3-D fantasy-adventure in fact be his equivalent of Francis Ford Coppola’s Robin Williams-Jennifer Lopez flick, “Jack”? Happily, such is not the case. In essence, “Hugo” the family-friendly extravaganza is only a pretext for Mr. Scorsese’s big-budget love letter to Georges Méliès and for his propaganda film championing moving-image archiving and preservation. You can pretty much tell the auteur was sleepwalking through all the C.G.I.-laden set pieces. But when the movie ventures into his passion-project territories, it comes more alive than any 3-D gimmickry.

Based on Brian Selznick’s “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” the film revolves around the eponymous orphan (Asa Butterfield) who is obsessed with fixing a broken automaton left by his late horologist father (Jude Law). Hugo lives inside a Parisian railway station where he winds up the clocks daily. In order to fix the automaton, he’s been stealing parts from a toy-shop owner who turns out to be none other than Méliès (Ben Kingsley) himself. Hugo’s father was a huge fan of “A Trip to the Moon”; but alas, Méliès has abandoned his artistic pursuits postwar to become a major killjoy. Hugo also must evade the watchful eye of a goofy, lovelorn and literally lame inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who has been rounding up all the homeless kids in the station and sending them off to the orphanage.

The first 30 minutes of “Hugo” are absolutely absurd, perhaps more so than “The Age of Innocence” and “Kundun” combined. You start to wonder just exactly what Mr. Scorsese was thinking. But once the “Cinema Paradiso”-esque celluloid nostalgia bits kick in, it makes total sense why he succumbed to paying lip service to family entertainment in order to make the movie he really wanted to make. Obviously, no one was going to give him $170 million for a Méliès biopic. “Hugo” goes so far as to lovingly recreate many of Méliès’s sets, props and costumes, yet the mass-market audience will think all this low-tech stuff is meant to be funny. To those who’ve never taken a course in film studies, Méliès is no more significant than some made-up character. But Mr. Scorsese is most persuasive about his cinephilia in the library scene, when his rapid-fire cuts make movie magic a reality.

“Hugo” is undoubtedly the sweetest and most sentimental movie Mr. Scorsese has ever made. Perhaps he’s gone a little soft with age, but this one is straight from the fucking heart.

HUGO

Opens on Nov. 23 in the United States and on Dec. 2 in Britain.

Directed by Martin Scorsese; written by John Logan, based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” by Brian Selznick; director of photography, Robert Richardson; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; music by Howard Shore; production design by Dante Ferretti; costumes by Sandy Powell; visual effects supervisor, Rob Legato; produced by Graham King, Tim Headington, Mr. Scorsese and Johnny Depp; released by Paramount Pictures (United States) and Entertainment Film Distributors (Britain). Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes. This film is rated PG by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Ben Kingsley (Pappa Georges/Georges Méliès), Sacha Baron Cohen (Station Inspector), Asa Butterfield (Hugo Cabret), Chloë Grace Moretz (Isabelle), Ray Winstone (Uncle Claude), Emily Mortimer (Lisette), Helen McCrory (Mama Jeanne), Christopher Lee (Monsieur Labisse), Michael Stuhlbarg (René Tabard), Frances de la Tour (Madame Emilie), Richard Griffiths (Monsieur Frick) and Jude Law (Hugo’s Father).

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