There was a time of old when CGI did not exist and filmmakers were forced to be creative with their efforts. Movies like Buster Keaton’s The General and Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush pulled incredible stunts that elicited a “How did they do that?” kind of wonder. Sometimes the results were corny or fake-looking (and effects that may have held up back then come off as dated now), but, in contrast to most CGI, the effects often looked real and tangible. They really were racing chariots in Ben-Hur! That shark looked so real in Jaws! Then, with movies like Jurassic Park (a genuinely good and groundbreaking movie, don’t get me wrong), CGI came onto the scene, robbing movies of substantial visual effects that felt there. I would never claim that CGI is across-the-board a bad thing, but for every Avatar that invites us into a fantastic new world, there’s a Clash of the Titans that drags us into a false, uncreative world that beats us over the head with visual fireworks. We’ve stepped into an age where the majority of shots in a movie consist of a camera pointed at nothing, everything added later on a computer screen. While we may have known the ships in Star Wars weren’t real, they certainly looked like tangible objects, and we had to wonder how they made it look like they were in space. But the robots in Transformers don’t even look real. The wonder is gone from effects themselves- you can now only find it in how creative the filmmakers manage to be with those effects.
Thank goodness for movies like Hugo that redeem CGI by using it creatively. And leave it to Martin Scorsese to use this new technology to masterfully pay tribute to the masters of the old technology.
Hugo is the name of our main character, a boy who lives in a Parisian train station where his absentee uncle (and guardian) worked as the caretaker of the clocks. Since his uncle’s disappearance, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) has kept the clocks running so that the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, charmingly narrow-minded) will not become aware of Hugo’s presence, or else he might get sent to an orphanage. Hugo’s father (Jude Law), a clockmaker, has died recently in an accident, and he left Hugo his passion, an automaton that the two were trying to repair. Now, Hugo steals parts from the station’s toy shop in an effort to make the automaton work again and fulfill his father’s dream.
The owner of the toy shop is one Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). That name will mean nothing to the general public, but film buffs will recognize it. I won’t give his identity away to those who haven’t seen it, because the plot is such a joy to discover on your own. I will say that Hugo gets sucked into an adventure of dreams and discovery by Méliès’s ward, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), who wants to help Hugo move on from his father’s death and whose family has secrets of their own.
Scorsese is a brilliant director- that goes without saying. He lends a solid, classic touch to this kid’s fable. The story is obviously up his alley; old movies play a huge part in the plot (it’s no secret that Scorsese is obsessed with film history), but don’t worry, mainstream audiences won’t be alienated. There’s at least one image from a classic that everyone will recognize, but perhaps they’ll consider its magic anew. Scorsese has staged the movie wonderfully with beautiful effects and a storybook feel. He has made it fun and enjoyable, but also with some dark undertones, like the best of Dickens. His cast is fantastic. Both children are wonderful, and this may be the best performance I’ve seen from Kingsley.
The big question that came to my mind is, will kids like it? It’s most definitely a kids’ movie, but it’s about old, silent movies; will kids even care? It also happens to be about more universal themes that would resonate with anyone- believing in one’s dreams, moving on past the death of a loved one. Kids will relate to the love Hugo has for his father and the longing for family that both children share. There’s also a wonderful metaphor Hugo gives in the middle of the movie that expresses a central theme. Hugo and Isabelle are talking about the automaton he’s trying to return to function, and Hugo says, “I just want to…work.” There are few things more universal than the desire to feel right, complete.