This fantastical children’s adventure from Martin Scorsese is less about the titular orphan, Hugo Cabret, than it is about the rediscovery of a pioneer of the earliest days of cinema.
Thus it is that, halfway through this delicious and delightful fable, the story arc fires off in a completely different direction altogether.
Up to that point we have followed the daily routine of Hugo, a quasi-Dickensian urchin living within the giant clocks of a Parisian railway station as he pinches food and avoids the clutches of a comic policeman played by Sacha Baron Cohen.
Indeed, Cohen is just the tip of the iceberg of an extraordinarily idiosyncratic cast that includes Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths and, in brief cameos, Ray Winstone and Jude Law. Asa Butterfield (from Yorkshire director Mark Herman’s excellent The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) is Hugo and Chloë Grace Moretz is his partner in mischief.
Hugo is a study in innocence, sentimentality and reminiscence. It tells the tale of a lonely boy but then focuses upon a sad, elderly man with a secret who runs the clockwork toy cabin in the station. This, then, is Scorsese’s mission: to re-educate (or educate for the first time) modern audiences as to the value of silent film. He packs the film with clips of familiar faces – from Keaton and Chaplin to Lloyd and a succession of fondly remembered but rarely seen moments from the embryonic days of cinema – and, perhaps amazingly, makes it all hugely moving.
Yet Hugo is far from the film that most people will expect. It covers a great deal of ground and gives Butterfield a chance to shine in a stellar cast of thoroughbreds. Kingsley achieves a vast amount by doing very little, morphing from curmudgeon to mentor, while Lee and Cohen (in Peter Sellers mode) appear to be from entirely different films.
Based on the novel by Brian Selnick, Hugo (in 3D, though it needn’t be) is a throwback to children’s movies from a gentler time. Scorsese is revisiting his childhood. And by doing so he gives today’s children a lesson in fun and fantasy.