I must admit that when I heard Martin Scorsese had made a kid-friendly film, I was taken aback, given his pedigree of Taxi Driver (1976), Goodfellas (1990) and most recently The Irishman (2019). It seemed like something out of character for the man, and so it was in the spirit of curiosity, more than anything else, that I watched Hugo on Netflix.
I was enthralled the entire time. My doubts were entirely misplaced.
First and foremost, this feels like a Scorsese movie even without the grit and mobsters. It has his trademark tracking shots, one through Gare Montparnasse in Paris, and it’s gorgeous. It has his way of using music that I can’t quite put my finger on, but is undoubtedly filled with a certain je ne sais quoi that shows how much the man loves the medium. More generally, it has the craftsmanship that Scorsese excels at.
The setting is a lavishly recreated interwar Paris, particularly the Gare Montparnasse train station. The plot concerns a young boy, Hugo, who lives in the station tending its various clocks, which are filled with enough gears to satisfy any steampunk aficionado.
The plot is driven in part by Hugo’s acquisition of an automata, which is imbued with a certain steam-era elegance. Since this is set in a train station, there are plenty of trains, one of which plays a small yet important role in the story. There is also a recreation of a certain famous picture of a train.
But, more than anything else, this film is a celebration of silent film, and of storytelling more generally. Much of the plot concerns the lost work of the French silent filmmaker Georges Méliès and an attempt to bring it back to prominence. Throughout the movie, the process of filmmaking is brought to life, showing the sheer liveliness of the whole enterprise. You see the passion of Méliès as he makes film after film, trying to bring out as much emotion and wonder as possible in every detail. I wonder if he is used here as a proxy for Scorsese himself. A lesser director might make it painfully obvious, but here it is delightful.
A love letter to silent film wrapped in an exquisite recreation of interwar Paris, Hugo is a film with real heart to it, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.