I saw this over winter break earlier this year. I tried getting my family to watch it but distractions and chores came up and I was left alone on the couch. I thought it was beautiful. Last week, our film club announced that this would kick off the year. Yesterday, me and one other person sat down and watched it on Blu-ray. It was still beautiful but it’s not a perfect film.
We start off with an interesting time lapse in Paris where tailights and headlights flow past like Koyaanisqatsi. We then see Hugo going about his day in the train station as he sets the clocks to the correct time. He goes about trying to dodge the station inspector, played by Sacha Baron Cohen in one of his more charming roles.
After ten minutes or so, the movie’s title is revealed in a rather awkward fashion. I say that because it not only comes out of nowhere but because the font clashes with the style of the film. The posters, like the one above, and trailers use a typeface that embodies a sense of adventure and magic. The title in the film has a typeface that’s more solid and mundane, a distinct change of style. On top of that, the title reveal takes place in a separate scene on a black background before going back to the actual film. It’s abrupt and throws you off for a few seconds.
Back to the story. In an attempt to steal some parts from a toy store, the owner catches him and forces him to empty his pockets or else he’ll call the inspector. Hugo gives up his notebook, one of the few items that’s a reminder of his father. He tries to get it back but the owner refuses. In a series of flashbacks, we learn of how Hugo became an orphan and his quest to fix the mysterious automaton.
Hugo follows the owner home and he sees a girl in the window. She comes out and promises to get Hugo’s notebook back. Over time, the two become friends as they go on an adventure to figure out the automaton’s secret. It turns out the girl literally holds the key to the mystery as it’s in the shape of the keyhole. The figure makes some scribbles here and there but they become an illustration of the rocket landing in the moon’s eye from A Trip to the Moon. This was a movie that Hugo’s father had seen and that it was like watching his dreams come to life.
There is one sequence that doesn’t really fit and that’s where Hugo has a dream within a dream. The first dream where he nearly gets run over by a train, I got that it was just a dream. While this sequence was going on, a train passed by outside the theater, adding some unwanted surround sound. Sure it’s funny, but keep in mind that the tracks were thirty or so feet from the closest wall of the theater and the scene showed a train derailment. Not exactly the best time to speculate, “Hey, what if this exact scene happened outside these walls when this played?” On top of that, it’s a dream within a dream as Hugo transforms into the automaton. I kept waiting for an Inception kick to happen but no such luck.
Things come to happy end as relationships are made and strengthened and the toy store owner, who happens to be George Melies as we find out in the movie, becomes happy with what he has done and presents his films to the public once more.
I have no doubt that it was amazing to see in the theaters, even in 3D. Even so, this film barely broke even. At the time this came out, this was the second film of 2011 about the early days of movies, the other being The Artist. Both were nominated for Best Picture but in the end, The Artist came out on top.
What has Hugo done to help movies? Mainly, it helped push the need for film preservation. It’s not every day that you see the early films but the need to preserve them is critical. In the movie, it is believed that Melies’ films were lost to the ages, even for the period the movie’s set in. You can find a digital print of some of these early fims any day of the week. But to see something like A Trip to the Moon in the original format, as fragile as it may be, is something you may only have one chance to see. Once a print’s gone, it’s gone. We do hear news from time to time about films that were once thought to be lost but then found in somebody’s garage. When the footage is retrieved, the need to preserve it comes to the forefront as it would be a shame to lose it again.
It’s not a perfect film but Hugo does tell a good story.
1001 MYMSBYD selection
Winner of Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing