Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Hugo’: Director Martin Scorsese’s Classic Family Film

Michael Clark

When it was revealed that Martin Scorsese was making a 3D children’s movie, most of his loyal fan base recoiled a tad more than slightly. The same man who made some of the greatest films of the last 40 years—all of them with decidedly adult content—is going to make a 3D kids' movie?!

After the initial shock wore off, an air of guarded optimism took over and glass-half-empty types finally took to rationalization. If anyone can make a 3D movie that looks good and comes with a great, well-told story, it’s Scorsese. And if he succeeds—if he really nails it—it will be superb.

Just because a movie features child actors as the leads, which children will love, doesn’t mean its appeal is limited to that demographic. There are plenty of adults who will be enthralled by this amazing film.

Critics and Audiences Agree

Superb doesn’t begin to describe “Hugo.” With one teeny-tiny exception, every facet of this movie achieves a level of perfection never previously seen in any motion picture. The premise, the writing, the acting, the editing, costume and set designs, the little details, the special effects, the direction, everything.

Yes, even the 3D is impeccable. Critics and mass audiences—groups of people who rarely agree on anything—are blessed with a movie such as “Hugo,” if they’re real lucky, once every decade or so. Three months after its release, “Hugo” was nominated for 11 Academy Awards (more than any other 2011 title), eventually winning five.

While going into the details of the plot might prod some on the fence into giving “Hugo” a shot, it would be a disservice to truly interested viewers, remove elements of surprise, and squash the myriad of twists. In this instance, being vague about what happens is infinitely preferable.

Chloe Grace Moretz as Isabelle and Asa Butterfield as Hugo in "Hugo." (Paramount Pictures)
Chloe Grace Moretz as Isabelle and Asa Butterfield as Hugo in "Hugo." (Paramount Pictures)
Once you get past the imagined “children/3D” stumbling block, the story begins to dovetail and mushroom in the most unexpected, joyous, and sometimes frightening ways. Both the title character (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) are orphans and are in possession of the kind of artistic talents that children their age don’t usually have, but not excessively so. They’re not wunderkinds or freaks or tortured geniuses in training; they’re just inquisitive, smart, and appropriately drawn to each other.

More Than Just Puppy Love

While Isabelle is a voracious reader, Hugo prefers movies, which he used to attend with his late father (Jude Law). She introduces him to the classics, and he takes her to see her first film (Harold Lloyd’s “Safety Last!”). To call what is developing between them “puppy love” would be accurate but also a huge generalization. The relationship between Hugo and Isabelle, like all the others in film, is multilayered yet firmly grounded in reality. There are two hypnotic, back-to-back dream sequences, but no elements of fantasy or magic. Everything that takes place in the movie could actually happen in real life.

Showing up in the first scene after the opening credits and weaved throughout the remaining narrative is an automaton that bears a striking resemblance to The Machine Man played by Brigitte Helm in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927).

The automaton surrounded by Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). (Paramount Pictures)
The automaton surrounded by Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). (Paramount Pictures)

Currently broken, the automaton was a project that Hugo and his dad were working on just prior to the latter’s death. When not tending to the many clocks in the train station, Hugo devotes every second of his free time trying to fix it, which includes scrounging around for missing parts.

Asa Butterfield as Hugo and Ben Kingsley as Georges in "Hugo." (Paramount Pictures)
Asa Butterfield as Hugo and Ben Kingsley as Georges in "Hugo." (Paramount Pictures)

In the opinion of shopkeeper Georges (Ben Kingsley), Hugo is stealing these items, a position shared by Inspector Dasté (Sacha Baron Cohen). Dasté is a World War I veteran with a bum leg, who polices the station with a Doberman Pinscher and appears to take great pleasure in snatching up vagrant children and dispatching them to the local orphanage.

Inspector Dasté (Sacha Baron Cohen) in a moment when he is not policing the train station. (Paramount Pictures)
Inspector Dasté (Sacha Baron Cohen) in a moment when he is not policing the train station. (Paramount Pictures)

As it turns out, Georges turns out to be Isabelle’s godfather and as such, once she becomes aware of exactly what transpired in his first confrontation with her newfound friend, she intervenes on Hugo’s behalf.

About halfway through, it becomes clear that Scorsese’s dogged dedication to movie preservation (he founded “The Film Foundation” in 1990) starts working its way into the plot, and writer John Logan (“Gladiator,” “The Aviator,” "Rango”) brilliantly does so without any type of force-fitting.

Asa Butterfield as Hugo in "Hugo." (Paramount Pictures)
Asa Butterfield as Hugo in "Hugo." (Paramount Pictures)
Employing the most modern, up-to-date technology, Scorsese and Logan give everyone a most welcomed, highly informative, and entertaining lesson on the origins of film without ever preaching or drifting into dry, listless, yawn-inducing minutiae.

Now Back to That Teeny-Tiny Exception

The movie (based on the novel by Brian Selznick, a twice-removed first cousin of movie pioneer David O. Selznick) is set in post-World War I Paris where nobody speaks French and everyone talks with a British accent.

While it’s very nice, looking at the Paris skyline and taking in the accordion-based score, there’s nothing contained in the details of the story itself that would have prevented the filmmakers from changing the setting to London. It would have served everyone so much better and easily removed the movie's only facet of artificiality.

To suggest that it might be better than, say, “The Departed,” “Raging Bull” or “GoodFellas” would be like comparing apples to oranges and patently unfair to Scorsese. The fact that the same person could have made all of those films and “Hugo” is testimony to his talent and range. “Hugo” provides the proof, if any was still needed, that Scorsese doesn’t just make mob movies. It’s safe to say that “Hugo” is Scorsese’s best film that isn’t rated “R.”

This film is the work of a genius at the top of his game. It exceeds all expectations and is literally a movie for anyone with a pulse. By anyone’s standards, this is quite simply one of the finest motion pictures ever made.

‘Hugo’ Director: Martin Scorsese Stars: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jude Law Running Time: 2 hours, 6 minutes MPAA Rating: PG Release Date: Nov. 23, 2011 Rating: 5 out of 5
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on FloridaManRadio.com. Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.