It’s already cliché to call Hugo “Scorsese’s love letter to cinema,” but what else does one call a movie that features Georges Melies, one of the earliest pioneers of cinematic storytelling, as a central character? Sure, the simple narratives of A Trip to the Moon and Fantastic Voyage exist only to justify the special effects (sleight of hand that seemed primitive even before the age of the VCR), but considering his contemporaries were content to shoot crowded streets and city skylines, that Melies bothered with story at all was positively groundbreaking.
Did Melies recognize the inherent magical property of film, its ability to transport viewers far away from their mundane lives and everyday problems, to fantastic worlds and exotic locales (from the hostile surface of the moon to the mean streets of New York in 1976)? Scorsese seems to think so. Consider how reverently these characters speak about movies. Hugo at one point recalls how his father described the sensation of watching A Trip to the Moon for the first time: “He told me it was like seeing his dreams in the middle of the day.” Giving a young boy a tour of his studio set, Melies playfully whispers, “If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, look around. This is where they’re made.” It is Melies’ big speech before the retrospective of his restored films, though, that best captures the magical essence of his brand of escapist cinema: “My friends, tonight I address you as you truly are: wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers, magicians. Come dream with me.”
This monologue underlines another of Hugo’s major themes: film brings us closer together. “Come dream with me,” Melies says. When we watch A Trip to the Moon or Fantastic Voyage or any other movie in a theater, we share in the laughter, the tears, the applause—it is a unifying experience. Hugo’s father brought him to the cinema to take his mind off his mother’s death; thus, watching movies became part of their shared mourning process. Indeed, this quality of cinema is integral to Hugo’s character arc: the films he discovers lead him to a new life with Papa Georges, Mama Jeanne, and Isabelle, mending the hole left by his father’s death and freeing him from his lonely existence behind the walls of the train station.
But Scorsese doesn’t stop at celebrating Melies’ artistic achievements, or even at asserting the importance of preserving his work (though he laments the fact that so many prints were sacrificed to make shoe heels); he honors Melies’ legacy by creating a cinematic world every bit as magical as the lunar surface or the ocean’s depths. Scorsese’s camera fluidly tracks behind Hugo as he navigates the labyrinthine inner-workings of the train station’s clocks, guiding the viewer along on his quest to reassemble the mysterious automaton. The use of 3-D makes the journey all the more immersive; Scorsese uses it not as a crutch or a gimmick, but as another storytelling tool—a means of audience transportation.
Cinema’s greatest magician would have been proud.
[Originally written January 29, 2012.]