Movies like Hugo are tailor-made for the When Can I Watch column. Or maybe the When Can I Watch column is tailor-made for movies like Hugo.
To-may-to, to-mah-to. The bottom line is Martin Scorsese’s first foray into whimsical family storytelling requires the type of in-depth analysis we try and provide here. For while commercials advertise Hugo as an imaginative 3D adventure for the whole family, that’s only accurate up to a point.
A quick warning. Spoilers abound in this week’s column as we discuss whether Hugo’s the right movie for your family to take in this Thanksgiving holiday. If you’d rather skip to a verdict without necessarily hearing “why,” jump down to the Appropriate Age section, where I’ll summarize without spoiling much.
For the rest of you, let’s fix our automaton, avoid Sacha Baron Cohen’s snooping security guard, fall in love with the early works of Georges Méliès, and figure out when you can watch Scorsese’s Hugo with your kids.
Green Lights: “My father took me to the movies all the time.
He told me it was like seeing his dreams during the day.”
In so many ways, Hugo marks a radical departure for Scorsese, who built his reputation on the backs of gritty, unpredictably violent thrillers. Scorsese has veered off that path on occasion, attempting comedy (After Hours, The King of Comedy) and period drama (Kundun, The Age of Innocence). But Hugo marks the Oscar winner’s first attempt at an accessible family feature.
At least, in his opening half.
I’m reversing my column’s order for the first time, touching on the green lights that illuminate Scorsese’s story because, for the most part, they help set the stage for what you can expect.
The film adapts Brian Selznick’s novel about resourceful orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who lives in the walls of a Parisian train station where he tends to the clocks his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone) used to man. As Hugo steers clear of a bumbling station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), he makes a natural enemy in Georges Méliès (Sir Ben Kingsley), a toyshop owner who’s tired of Hugo stealing his trinkets. But there’s more to Georges than meets the eye, and Hugo’s narrative changes drastically once he unlocks the secrets of Méliès’ true identity.
Scorsese’s first act is a dazzling trip over, under and through a cavernous set, where the director takes his newfound toy – 3D cinematography – out for a lengthy spin. The depth of focus achieved in Scorsese’s shots is remarkable, and one could spend weeks exploring the masterful train station constructed by the director’s crew.
We meet, through flashback, Hugo’s father (Jude Law), an inventor who acquires an automaton – or robot – for he and his son to repair together. Dads watching with their own children will appreciate the joy that dances across Hugo’s face as he’s able to spend quality time with his parent … until Law’s character loses his life in a fire. It’s a quick scene, and one that’s not too traumatic. But the fact that Hugo contends with the hardships of being a Dickensian orphan is more of a red flag, to a certain extent, as young kids might wonder what happened to him.
Older kids accustomed to orphaned protagonists (thanks, Disney!) will be far too engrossed by Scorsese’s visual trickery to get bogged down in that obstacle. As Hugo progresses, our young hero befriends Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), Georges’ novel-devouring niece -- and another orphan -- who attaches herself to this unique street urchin because “this might be an adventure.”
And it is. Hugo needs a key to finally ignite his repaired automaton. Isabelle, coincidentally, has the key he’s looking for. And the robot’s message sends this inquisitive duo to Georges’ doorstep, where he’s forced to confront his past.
Before that, however, Hugo allows Scorsese – through Hugo and Isabelle’s tender relationship – to explore the pure act of sharing the cinema for the first time. She’s never been, it turns out. Her guardians won’t allow it. So the two sneak into a theater showing Harold Lloyd’s brilliant Safety Last. And it’s magical. Film-geek parents will feel Scorsese’s enthusiasm for his preferred method of storytelling vibrating off the screen.
But will your children?
This theme of awakening a passion for cinema picks up steam in Hugo’s second half. And it will connect, deeply, with older audience members who already adore films, filmmaking, and storytelling as much as Scorsese does. But while Hugo is a movie about children learning to love movies, it’s not necessarily a movie made for children falling in love with movies for the first time.
I’ll try to explain in the red flags section.
Red Flags: “Time is everything. Everything.”
Here’s a major plot reveal for Scorsese’s Hugo, and one you should avoid at all costs if you’d like to maintain a blank slate before enjoying the film. Stop reading now if you don’t want to be spoiled.
Stop. I mean it.
Kingsley’s character is Georges Méliès, an actual early pioneer of moving images who, in the early 20th century, devoted his life to the cinema. He made hundreds of movies with his wife and muse, Jeanne (Helen McCrory). But he burned all of his works following World War I, when soldiers returning home from the atrocities of combat had little interest for his whimsical works. His dreams were destroyed. And he believed, for decades, that his endearing creations – as well as the memories attached to them – were lost.
Hugo and Isabelle learn this from a film scholar and self-proclaimed Méliès expert (Michael Stuhlbarg) who happens to own an original, short reel of Méliès’ work. The trio sets out on a mission to convince Méliès that his life’s work was not in vane. And there, in Scorsese’s poignant third act, the two dominant threads of his Hugo storyline converge into one powerful message. Hugo switches gears from a fanciful 3D lark to become a Master Class in cinema’s rich history and a passionate plea for film preservation.
But will kids stay interested? The youngest will not. John Logan’s screenplay discusses our legacies, asking how we’ll be remembered and wondering what our purpose is in life. What part do we all play in this giant machine that is “existence?”
Scorsese livens the seriousness of his material with Cohen’s clumsy antics. But he doesn’t hurry the pace, and Hugo’s second half will test most kids’ patience. The themes are important, but they’ll better connect with older kids who have some appreciation for film, history, the search for one’s purpose in life, and the elation of being included in a family.
Hugo is a beautiful story with an admirable message film aficionados eventually will want to share with their kids … particularly if your children share your passion for cinema. I guarantee you’ll be watching Hugo with your children years from now, maybe once they’ve discovered some of the true treasures of this incredibly special storytelling medium.
But as an exhilarating 3D adventure, it falls short. Something tells me Tintin will deliver those thrills. In fact, I’d love to see Steven Spielberg tackle Hugo. Because while Scorsese’s the ideal director to lovingly manage the encyclopedic nature of this film’s second half, Spielberg might have been a more accurate choice to marry the two halves together into one cohesive movie-going experience.
Martin Scorsese has a daughter who recently turned 12. I mention that because I honestly believe he made Hugo as a film she and her friends could enjoy … and you probably should use that age as a benchmark.
Hugo doesn’t contain very many images that will disturb your child. A parent dies on screen, but the scene is brief. Hugo’s tracked by a station manager who rustles up orphans, yet his life’s never really in danger. The language isn’t objectionable. When did you ever think we’d say that about a Scorsese movie?
And yet, the overall themes of Hugo – from film appreciation to film preservation -- won’t appeal to the youngest audience members. They will be turned on by the 3D aspects of the opening act, but turned off by the emotional depths of the second act. It’s a tough balancing act with Hugo. There’s a lot to appreciate, but I think your kids will understand it better in time.
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Spy Kids, to name just a few.
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