The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Chloe Grace Moretz, Asa Butterfield, and their mechanical friend.

On the surface, you might wonder why Martin Scorsese would choose to make Hugo. The man who brought us Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, and The Departed doesn't seem like the obvious choice to make a PG-rated family adventure that's based on a young adult novel. But despite how it's being advertised, Hugo is not another City of Ember or Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that this may be Scorsese's most personal film yet. It's certainly one of his very best.

The story is set in 1930s Paris. Asa Butterfield plays Hugo Cabret, an orphan who lives in the walls and hidden passageways of the city's train station. His father (Jude Law) died in an accident, and his drunken uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) taught him how to fix all the station's clocks. Now that Claude too has passed, Hugo has to fend for himself. He steals food and other items from the shops inside the station, and perpetually has to outrun the nasty Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who is diligent in shipping off orphans. Hugo's life changes when the owner of a tiny toy shop (Ben Kingsley) catches him and, as punishment, takes his cherished notebook, the only thing he has left to remember his father by. (Well, that and the mechanical automaton he's trying to repair.) Chloe Grace Moretz plays Isabelle, a young girl raised by the shopkeeper and his wife. She befriends Hugo and agrees to help him get the notebook back. He, in turn, introduces her to the magic of movies, which his father introduced to him. As their friendship grows, they make surprising discoveries about the shopkeeper, his connection to Hugo's father, the secret behind the automaton, and how all three pertain to motion pictures.

There is an important element to the story that I am intentionally leaving out in order to preserve the surprise. Let's just say that the plot significantly incorporates the work of silent film director Georges Melies (A Trip to the Moon), as well as themes related to the history and preservation of film – things that are obviously near and dear to Martin Scorsese's heart. Hugo is a master filmmaker's gift to children. It teaches, in an age-appropriate way, why movies are important and why it's essential that we take care of them. There has been some debate on the internet as to whether kids will like this movie. I think older ones will. If I'd have seen it when I was nine or ten, I'd have loved it. My guess is that kids around that age and older will enjoy learning something about cinema, and since Georges Melies' work was extremely visual, they'll respond positively to the creative images. Scorsese refuses to pander, so the movie is just as enjoyable (and maybe even more so) if you're an adult with some knowledge of the subject.

The first hour of Hugo does indeed play like a fairly conventional – albeit much better than average – kids' adventure. Hugo weaves his way through the hidden corridors of the train station, climbing over the cogs and wheels of the clockworks, and engages in comical chases with the Station Inspector. Then, in the second hour, the heart of the story starts to reveal itself, and a film that was wonderful suddenly becomes magical. Although the elements may not sound like they go together, Scorsese and writer John Logan (adapting Brian Selznick's “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”) make it all flow seamlessly. Movies about movies are often self-referential (e.g. The Player, Tropic Thunder) or nostalgic (e.g. The Artist, The Majestic). Hugo finds a different approach, telling a wondrous story that explores the importance of preserving cinema history. Because the subject is so important to the director, the tale is told with irresistible passion.

It is no accident that Scorsese has decided to shoot Hugo in 3D. George Melies, a former magician, was a pioneer of special effects who doubtlessly would have loved the possibilities offered by a third dimension. Anyone who doubts that 3D can be a valuable tool in the filmmaker's box needs to see what Scorsese does with it here. He knows how to compose a shot, so the 3D becomes an organic part of the experience, and even ties in thematically to the story. Scenes that begin in high places end in low ones, and vice versa. The camera glides through the crowded train station, wisps of smoke rushing toward it and hurried passengers rushing past it. The clockworks spin and rotate, making you feel as though you're in these cramped spaces right along with Hugo. Scorsese even uses 3D to pay homage to the Lumiere brothers' Train Pulling Into a Station, which was the first publicly projected film. You may know the legend, which states that audiences literally ducked when the train approached the camera, fearing that they'd be run over. That landmark film is essentially recreated, now utilizing the latest 3D technology. Should you pay a couple extra dollars to see Hugo in 3D? Absolutely! It's never been used better than it is here.

Everything else is equally wonderful. The performances are delightful, with Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz shining as the young heroes. Sacha Baron Cohen gets big laughs with his physical comedy, while Ben Kingsley provides the heart and soul of the film. The production design and special effects allow us to become fully immersed in this imaginary world. It all adds up to a viewing experience that engages on both intellectual and emotional levels. Plus, it's a lot of fun. Hugo obviously appeals to me as a film buff, but I don't think it's an insular picture at all. As I've said before, the best movies make you care about their subject matter during the time you watch them, whether the subject matter is something you'd normally care about or not. Made with love and consummate skill, Hugo is, like the pictures it references, the stuff that dreams are made of.

( out of four)

Hugo is rated PG for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking. The running time is 2 hours and 6 minutes.

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