Family, 126 Minutes, 2011
It’s sometimes hard to review universally acclaimed films. There’s a temptation to run counter to the pack and find flaw (anything everybody likes can’t really be good can it?) Sometimes you just have to admit it though: the pack has its moments. This is something special.
Firstly (and perhaps least importantly) it’s a deeply beautiful film. Scorsese is known for making beautiful films (and for finding beauty in ugly places) but he completely outdoes himself here. The world is wonderfully layered and scales wonderfully throughout. The miniature mechanisms of the automaton are mirrored in the enormous gears and pinions of the clock-tower. The open-spaces of the station floor are balanced by the claustrophobic steam tunnels. The attention to detail is lavish.
Secondly the intertwined stories being told (and there are several) are entrancing. Troubled orphans don’t have to work incredibly hard to gain audience support but this one is especially endearing. Asa Butterfield is a young actor to watch and Chloë Grace Moretz has done more great work before she turned 15 than most actors will do in their entire lives.
What really underscores the film though are the wonderful secondary characters populating the world. Scorsese has no trouble attracting great talent to his projects and there are truly no small roles here. The background characters are brought richly, and often wordlessly, to life and given stories just as engaging as the main thread. The pacing is brilliantly effective as it weaves between the multiple narratives.
Finally all of this is wrapped lovingly around the (romanticized) true story of Georges Méliès’, one of the great pioneers of film. While not entirely accurate nothing has better captured the spirit of his work and his driving desire to inspire wonder. Méliès’ obsession with the crafting of fantasy led him to design the precursors of nearly all modern special effects and his films, most now over a 100 years old, still resonate remarkably well. Ben Kingsley could not have been more well cast.
If Hugo did nothing more than create a meaningful tribute to Méliès’ it would be special. But it does so much more than that and does it all exceedingly well. It succeeds on every level it attempts: as a family film, as a tribute to Méliès’, as a period piece and as a simple tour de force for Scorsese. Yes indeed, sometimes the pack can be right.