[EDITOR'S NOTE: Fearless Sarah D. Bunting of Tomatonation.com is making it her mission to watch every single film nominated for an Oscar before the Academy Awards Ceremony on February 26, 2012. She is calling this journey her Oscars Death Race. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here. And you can follow Sarah through this quixotic journey here.]
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in a fairy tale, in both senses of that word. He's not troubled with real-life adolescent bagatelles like homework, and he lives unsupervised in the clock tower of a Parisian train station, where he's in charge of keeping the clocks running.
But Hugo is unsupervised because his parents have both died. (…I believe? I'm not entirely clear on what has become of his mother; his father, played by Jude Law, is consumed by a fiery backdraft in flashback, and this is not explained either.) Hugo's druncle Claude (Ray Winstone) takes custody of the boy, sticks around long enough for Hugo to learn the station-clock trade, then goes on walkabout, and Hugo is left to fend for himself. Fortunately, he's gifted at fixing things, so he keeps the clocks running in the hopes that nobody will notice Claude has gone missing, and dodges the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), an orphan-phobe with a mechanical leg and an equally hostile Doberman. Hugo nicks pastries from bakeries, and spare parts from Georges, the sour proprietor of a toy stall (Ben Kingsley), because on top of keeping the time and staying out of the boys' home, Hugo has a third job: trying to fix an old automaton repatriated by his father from a museum, in the hope that the machine will send him one last message from beyond the grave. And it does, in more ways than one.
Hugo is beautiful entirely aside from the thoughtful 3D effects. Snow looks real, and cold; clock gears look real, and old; the characters frequently compare movies to dreams, and the visual style has a heightened, almost Burton-y dreaminess, in the small touches almost more than the big showy bits (the bishop's sarcophagus; the weave of Hugo's sweater). The characters, and the way they're shot, contribute to the fable feeling; Hugo shortly finds an ally in Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), Georges's goddaughter, a girl who loves libraries and big words and longs for one of the adventures she's enjoyed within them, and her ally is the peerless Christopher Lee as bookseller Monsieur Labisse. Labisse is usually shot from an angle that emphasizes his towering size, which both intimidates and protects.
The mythological story — the labors to earn back the notebook, the redemption of the warrior of the past who now toils in heartbroken obscurity — might not seem like an intuitive choice for Martin Scorsese. But the story is a love letter to film, and to the "indoorsy kids" through the ages who, confined to quarters, learned the world through the stories of others. That sort of elegy could pall quickly, and the speeches about the magic of cinema are…just that, but they're also relatively short, utterly sincere, and backed by Scorsese's voluminous knowledge. I liked The Artist well enough, but Hugo makes it look even gimmickier by comparison.
The superstitions of children that aren't just children's; Law, examining the automaton and recalling the company he kept in AI; Isabelle's horrified "DON'T YOU LIKE BOOKS?!" and Georges's defeated "Please, just — go away" — there is a bittersweet current running through Hugo that makes it much more than its technical achievements, and a wonderful note to hit for Scorsese. I love the man's work, but he can present at times as alienated from the concept that movies are by and about human beings. Here, he's operating from that idea's lap, and that shift shows up all over the movie; just when you feel like you've had enough of the glowering station agent and the gags with his leg locking on him, Cohen delivers this line from the depths of a sinking chest: "Yes, I was injured in the war and it will never heal, good day mademoiselle." And there's the character in three dimensions, no special glasses required.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.