A dazzling array of gears dissolved into the streets of Paris, and a single gear turned magically into a roundabout, and just like that for me Hugo went from the realm of near animation to reality. The teeming Gare Montparnasse is well endowed with clocks that all keep working on precisely oiled and turned gears. Making them keep perfect time is an orphaned boy called Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who lives in the forgotten spaces between the walls of the train station. Hugo’s father (Jude Law), a clock-maker and museum employee, is dead, and his guardian, a drunk uncle who is responsible for keeping the station clocks running, has been gone for days. Between stealing a meager daily meal, avoiding the lame station agent Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his ferocious doberman who are constantly on the lookout for vagrant orphan boys, stealing clockwork parts from the toy stall owner Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), and keeping the innumerable near inaccessible clocks running, Hugo leads a busy life. But it does have a singular purpose – that of fixing an automaton his father had found in the museum. The automaton is child size, extremely wide-eyes, metallic, and is supposed to be able to write and draw when fully functioning. Hugo is helped by Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), the adopted daughter of Papa Goerges and Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory), and in turn Hugo introduces her to the movies, particularly those of George Melies.
The tale takes on a dazzling and dizzyingly euphoric quality at this point. The children want to set right what seems wrong with Papa Georges, Hugo wants to get the automaton to work and Isabelle’s heart shaped key locket holds the solution, Mama Jeanne wants to relive the memories of a time when she and George were spinning dreams, Gustav just wants the flower girl Lisette (Emily Mortimer) to love him! Scorsese takes us into this fantastical world that began as a way to capture reality when the Lumiere brothers first filmed a train coming into a station, but one man’s vision saw in it the potential to bring our dreams to reality. Only a true lover of cinema could meld so beautifully the fantasy of a boy living inside walls with the magic of the first feature films filled with action, effects and edits! The acting is uniformly wonderful, with Ben Kingsley taking top honors. Filmed in glorious 3D, bright as a jewel, and lovingly detailed be it the dwelling within the walls or the sets created and used by Melies, Hugo satisfies the senses and emotions equally well. The “reality” that is Hugo Cabret’s life seems full of fantasy, and the fantasy world that Melies creates reveals all its real sleights of hand. Scorsese thus effectively blurs the barriers between reality and fantasy and makes film a coherent whole.
Hugo was one of the most satisfying watches this year, probably the best film in Scorsese’s second directorial innings, and likely needs to be watched more than once to be absorbed fully and enjoyed the way it is meant to be. And yes, the 3D is a must, probably the best I have seen – yes even better than Avatar!