It is so magnificent that the opening shot warrants an end credit.
From here the pace slows for a while and much is done with little said. We learn that Hugo is a fixer of things, a sort of urchin, a sort of thief, living alone and by his wits in secret apartments within the giant clock. This seems appropriate enough in that Hugo’s father (Jude Law) and uncle work with clocks and gizmos and watch springs. Apart from his memories, Hugo’s sole companion is a boy automaton that sits at the table, broken and neutral but seeming to regard everything with a sense of patient expectation. His father found it, and fixing it was to be a hobby for the two of them. We can do this, said the father to the son, because we’re watchsmiths. The father’s use of second “we” was poignant.
The movie quickly establishes its set of characters and draws them in untrustworthy shades of good and bad. There is the evil and comic train inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen) who has a Doberman, a small jail cell for captured orphans and a balky metal leg brace. Where Scorcese’s camera effortlessly accompanies the boy through the grandness of the clock’s interior, the station inspector’s leg is not built to facilitate the same pursuit. There’s the young girl whose love of books informs her vocabulary and she treats herself to the considered use of words like “reprobate” and “seclusion” and “superlative”, which she finds as delightful in her mouth as maybe Smarties. There’s the old man at the toy shop who through merciless effort and outward appearance is a cruel, cruel man. But here’s the first real hint of greatness in the movie: you disbelieve him. It’s a wonderful performance by Ben Kingsley.
The movie describes a great circle of a story. The boy believes the automaton holds a secret message from his father but lacks a critical piece. The girl solves the mystery of the automaton’s heart-shaped key. The automaton solves the mystery of the unhappy man in the toy shop. The unhappy man made movies. A full-moon of a circle.
Movies, this movie tells us, let you see your dreams in the daytime. In fact, this movie tells us a lot about movies. Isabelle, the girl with the heart-shaped key, has never seen one. And so Hugo (himself evocative of "Oliver Twist") takes Isabelle to sneak into a showing of “Safety Last”. It is fortunate that they are discovered and thrown out only after having just viewed the most iconic scene from that movie. The image of Harold Lloyd clinging to life by a minute-hand will later have great import for Hugo as he finds himself pursued by the Station Inspector to the crossroads of escape or capture.
The more you know about the earliest movies, the more you are likely to enjoy “Hugo”. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies I have only recently seen for the first time some of the great films of Chaplin and Lloyd and Keaton. So in "Hugo" you get peeks of the magnificent shot from “The General” - Buster Keaton sitting stone-faced as the train’s great connecting rod starts to move. There’s Charlie Chaplin and a young boy - it must be a scene from “The Kid”. And key to this movie, you watch as a rocket is launched to approach the moon, which turns into the Man in the Moon, and the rocket hits him dead in the eye. That movie, “A Trip to the Moon”, was made by Georges Méliès and the more you know about him going into "Hugo", the more delighted you’re apt to be.
Some irresistible sidebars: If you were to attempt to draw an arc along the whole history of movies, could you have done a better job than pulling together a cast that included Christopher Lee, Jude Law and Sasha Baron Cohen? I nudged Ian at the cameo Scorcese made as (what else?) the photographer. And it took a moment, but I finally placed the man playing René Tabard as the actor who plays Arnold Rothstein in "Boardwalk Empire", executive produced by Martin Scorcese.
The plot of the movie twists and turns. At one point Ben Kingley’s character sadly tells Hugo that happy endings only happen in movies. Since we know he’s in one, Ben has given away the finish.
I have only two complaints. One is that the 3D effect was often distracting and jarred me out of the story. Admittedly, the distraction grew less as the movie went on. And to give it its due, there were scenes in the clock tower where the combination of camera angle and 3D provided a fantastic sense of depth and a delightful lurch in the stomach.
My other smallish complaint was with Sasha Baron Cohen who seemed to bring to the movie certain improvised moments whose tone ran against the grain. As well, there were times when his accent would wander and for several lines I found myself suddenly listening to Ali G where moments before there had been the Station Inspector.
Here's where I found greatness in this movie. Your results may differ.
There are several side characters, lesser characters, say, that all have parts that, while not directly serving the main plot of the story, reinforce its key theme. They also live much of their lives in Gare Montparnasse accompanied by waltzes on French accordions (lucky them). There’s the fat man wooing the spectacled woman only to be rebuffed repeatedly by her dog. There’s the pretty flower girl who has the eye of the Station Inspector, and after a few balky attempts, together they finally get to paint a more loving and sympathetic dimension to the Station Inspector. There's the book store owner who growls from his high perch (it's Christopher Lee - how could he not growl?) but in the end provides vital connections for the two young heroes. All of these characters have purpose, and that purpose is persist and succeed and elevate the people you care for. Where the movie began by showing us what we thought to be good guys and bad guys, by the end of the movie we're able to see good in everyone.
All parts are good parts.
The greatest good is Hugo’s. He has told Isabelle that he prefers to see the universe as a perfect machine, and given the assumption of perfection, there can be no extra parts. He tells her this because he does not yet know what his part is supposed to do, but intrinsically he knows that it should be useful, it should have a specific purpose and it should be good. In the end, Hugo’s isn't only that good thing that's fixed the automaton, but a great thing that's fixed a man.
My breath caught as I realized this movie had been talking to ME, that the movie was telling the whole audience that everyone's life has meaning.
That there are no spare parts in the universe. And all parts are good parts.