We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. Click here for more information.

Martin Scorsese's "Hugo"

"Like nearly all of Scorsese's films, _Hugo_ can be taken as personal allegory."
David Hudson

"Martin Scorsese's Hugo begins with a vertiginous descent that only gains speed as it follows a train and barrels into the station that will be its main setting," writes Phil Coldiron in Slant. "Leaving the tracks, it continues on its path through the concourse, moving past digital extras, the first of many ghostly presences, before seamlessly entering the realm of the real — that is, the soundstage. The worlds of Lumière (the train: the document of reality) and Méliès (the impossible camera: the spectacle of fantasy) come together, the latter used as a tool to try to restore the long-lost thrill of the former. This is the first moment of Scorsese's career that could accurately be described as Cameronian; it's also the first appearance of Hugo's exceptionally personal cinematic gambit."

"Like nearly all of Scorsese's films, Hugo can be taken as personal allegory," agrees Adam Cook. "It can also be taken as an allegory about film preservation. And, most obviously, it can be taken as a movie that is so full of love for movie-making it needs to express it any way imaginable. If along the way, it treads in some foolish territory, that's only a testament to Scorsese's exuberant approach which more often than not results in some of his most thrilling images."

"Like many children's classics, Hugo, based on the extraordinary novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007), by Brian Selznick, is the story of an orphan," writes David Denby in the New Yorker. "Hugo's father (Jude Law), a horologist, dies, and the boy [Asa Butterfield] inherits his passion; he runs the clocks in the Gare Montparnasse, including the two giants, one facing into the station and the other onto the street. Like the Hunchback of Notre-Dame or the Phantom of the Opera, Hugo lives a secret life in a public place — a rubbishy room up in the clockworks, where he tinkers with inventions old and new…. The terminal has its own society and permanent residents, including the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), a pompous prig who rounds up boys like Hugo and sends them to an orphanage, and a cranky old man who presides in silence over a toy store — Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) himself, mourning his lost past. Between 1896 and 1913, Méliès made more than five hundred short films, including the lovely, antic Voyage to the Moon, but his company went bust and the French Army seized most of the film prints, melted them down, and turned the liquid celluloid into boot heels. After that, Méliès was forgotten…. The emotional pull of the story is irresistible: the boy needs a family, the illustrious filmmaker needs to regain his past, and a love of movies brings them together."

"Yes, this picture would seem to represent several kinds of departures for the man who gave us the likes of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, some of the most visionary and harrowing and emotionally raw American films of any era," writes Glenn Kenny at MSN Movies. "It's not just the fact that it is, indeed, a very family-friendly film, a period piece that's a fantasia on not just the magical place that was Paris in the 20s, but about one of filmmaking's earliest and greatest magicians. It's also in 3D, a technology that, as with most filmmaking modes and methods, Scorsese has studied backward and forward, but which one didn't necessarily expect him to actually use. But most movingly, I think, it's also the lightest, easiest and most serene of Scorsese's films, despite its often frenetic slapstick action."

Tim Grierson finds that "not unlike his longtime friend Steven Spielberg with the uneven Adventures of Tintin, Scorsese has taken the 3D plunge with Hugo, producing a visually dazzling movie that doesn't have the same sharpness when it comes to narrative. Though the film is named after him, Hugo is probably only the third-most-interesting character here. He's beaten by a hair by Isabelle [Chloe Grace Moretz], but they're both dwarfed by Kingsley's shopkeeper…. This is to take nothing away from how incredibly gorgeous Hugo is. Working with frequent collaborators cinematographer Robert Richardson and production designer Dante Ferretti, Scorsese gives us an environment that feels part-Dickens, part-enchanted fairy tale."

More from Peter Debruge (Variety), Pete Hammond (Box Office, 5/5), Kevin Jagernauth (Playlist, A-), Emanuel Levy (A-) and Todd McCarthy (Hollywood Reporter).

Nathaniel Rogers has notes from a screening over the weekend at which Scorsese and much of his crew were present for a bit of Q&A. Tom Shone offers a few notes on "Scorsese's late style." Jim Emerson considers "Scorsese and morality." And at Press Play, Aaron Aradillas revisits Cape Fear, 20 years on.

Scorsese put in a fun turn as a guest on the Daily Show the other night. More interviews and profiles: John Horn (Los Angeles Times) and Rick Tetzeli (Fast Company). And Selznick and Scorsese are interviewed on NPR (9'00"). The Hollywood Reporter's Scott Roxborough confirms that Scorsese will indeed be adapting Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø's bestseller The Snowman.

Hugo opens tomorrow, but tonight, the Museum of the Moving Image in New York will be presenting an advance screening: "Selznick will make a presentation about The Invention of Hugo Cabret and the making of the movie, and then will participate in a discussion with screenwriter John Logan about the adaptation."

Updates: "By now, the story of Martin Scorsese has become legend," writes Scott Tobias at the AV Club. "As an asthmatic kid, he watched from his bedroom window in Little Italy as other children played on the street, and he retreated into the fantastical worlds conjured up by filmmakers like Alexander Korda." Hugo is "both a movie about young Scorsese and a movie that young Scorsese would have loved, while also bearing the distinct signature of the filmmaking world's most passionate historian and preservationist. And at a time when film itself seems headed toward extinction, it celebrates the mechanical wonder of celluloid running through a projector at 24 frames per second — during a period where the phenomenon wasn't taken for granted. (There's irony to Scorsese shooting this homage in digital 3D, but no doubt a magician like Méliès would approve of the innovation.)"

"Yes, Hugo is a family film and, yes, your children and your inner child stand to be enraptured, but the family Scorsese really made this for is the 100-year-old tribe of watchers in the dark," writes Ty Burr in the Boston Globe. "Hugo is a grand farewell and a stunning reintroduction, cued to a line of dialogue that's nearly a throwaway. After Hugo has taken Isabelle to a screening of the Harold Lloyd comedy classic Safety Last, she tells him, simply: 'Thank you for the movie. It was a gift.' Hugo is Scorsese's gift to all the dreamers who were and all the dreamers still to come."

"[T]he station is a cathedral of Deco splendor, no less magical than King's Cross Station and its Track 9-3/4, the launch point to Hogwarts for another 11-year-old orphan, Harry Potter," notes Time's Richard Corliss. "This world-within-a-world is populated with curious folks playing out their own little dramas of disappointment and romance. Among them are an elderly gentleman (The History Boys' Richard Griffiths) and his dowager friend (that English stage treasure, Frances de la Tour). Even the Station Inspector, who in story terms in the hounding Javert to Hugo's jeune Jean Valjean, is not entirely forbidding. Baron Cohen's rendition summons specters of both the French comic-auteur Jacques Tati and — in a homage so explicit it must be intentional — the persnickety authority figure so often played by Dudley Moore's comedy partner Peter Cook. The Inspector is given a potential mate in the lovely sad-sack Lisette (Emily Mortimer), whom he pursues in and out of the station's swank café, with a dance band conducted by… wait, is that dapper gent Johnny Depp?"

This is the "Paris of the Modernist imagination," writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, "though really it's movieland, where gears loom like those in Modern Times and a man who's part machine oils his bits like the Tin Man (while longing for a heart)…. Hugo is specifically about those observers of life who, perhaps out of loneliness and with desire, explore reality through its moving images, which is why it's also about the creation of a cinematic imagination — Hugo's, Méliès's, Mr Scorsese's, ours. Hugo is the tale of a boy, one of fiction's sentimental orphans, and the world he invents, yet, unsurprisingly, its most heartfelt passages are about Méliès. The old filmmaker is as broken and in need of revival as the automaton, and while you can guess what happens, it's the getting there — how the clock is wound — that surprises and often delights."

"As $170 million essay films about Georges Méliès go, you can hardly do better," writes Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York. "[A]n odd combo of Babe: Pig in the City and Godard's Histoire(s) du cinéma, Hugo is the strangest bird to grace the multiplex in a while."

"Scorsese uses 3D here as it should be used, not as a gimmick but as an enhancement of the total effect," argues Roger Ebert. "Notice in particular his re-creation of the famous little film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1897), by the Lumière brothers. You've probably heard its legend: As a train rushes toward the camera, the audience panics and struggles to get out of its way. That is a shot which demonstrates the proper use of 3D, which the Lumières might have used had it been available."

Updates, 11/23: "Perfunctorily mounted as a children's adventure, Hugo is weirdly staid in its pacing, and the screenplay, by Scorsese's Aviator collaborator John Logan, is full of groaners," writes Karina Longworth in the Voice. "The movie is far more successful as a barely veiled issue flick. Scorsese's most straightforward argument is that history repeats itself: that what happened to Méliès a century ago could easily happen today, as the film industry's ever-narrowing focus on the bottom line overwhelms historical and preservationist concerns. But of course, Scorsese is not an innocent bystander. He's abetting, proliferating, and profiting from Hollywood's inescapable money-first cynicism simply by making a movie in 3D. That this ticket-price-inflating crutch has become all but obligatory for studio films to justify their inflated budgets is its own kind of history-repeating tragedy: How rarely has this 'value-add' — cribbed from Hollywood's most desperate 20th-century moment — felt like anything other than a cheat?"

"Cameron himself has called Hugo a 'masterpiece,'" notes New York's David Edelstein. "I liked the film enormously but am not so ready to use the 'm' word. The bravura overture establishes the prevailing emotion: technological exuberance, rather than the hero's longing for human contact."

Scorsese is "a director already peculiarly concerned with the alchemy of the vectors of his shots and his actors' glances, and how to burn the movement and rhythm of a heightened moment into the brain," writes Nicolas Rapold for the L. "His use of 3D — which does not approach that kind of intensity and cannot be his final word on the format — is above all a way of recreating the feel of inhabiting the station (which is more than a matter of dimensions)."

For Peter Martin, writing at Twitch, Hugo is "the first truly great use of 3D in motion pictures as a means of extended enchantment."

"The original story in Brian Selznick's book is strictly serious, but the movie for reasons of its own has chosen to add a major slapstick element that does nothing but misfire," finds Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times. "Coming to the film's rescue, fortunately, is one of Scorsese's great passions, his love for the early history of cinema."

"Selznick's book is ambitious in its own right, a marvel of figurative and literal crosshatching," writes Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek. "The illustrations are marvelously textured pencil drawings in black, white and gray. Scorsese's Hugo is much more colorful, but it still holds the spirit of Selznick's book delicately, as if it were a special treasure housed in the shell of an egg."

Trevor Link at Spectrum Culture: "Easily one of Scorsese's gentlest films, Hugo operates according to a logic that finds it necessary, in the end, to humanize even the one character who truly threatens Hugo, Sacha Baron Cohen's pesky but hardly villainous train station inspector. When most of the characters, both major and minor, are brought together for the final scene, most appropriately at a film screening, we see in this moment one of Scorsese's fondest and most deeply felt realizations of his vision of community, a democratic assembly where all find a place."

"In 1966," blogs the New Yorker's Richard Brody, "on the occasion of a Louis Lumière retrospective, Jean-Luc Godard delivered a speech in praise of Henri Langlois, the founder of the Cinémathèque Française — a hidden subject of Hugo — and said, 'People say: Lumière is documentary, and Mèliès, fantasy…. Let's say, more precisely, that what interested Mèliès was the ordinary in the extraordinary, and Lumière, the extraordinary in the ordinary.' What's known as cinematic realism, indeed some of its artistic zeniths, are achieved by means of background paintings, matte paintings, miniatures, rear-screen projections, and double exposures; meanwhile, the very essence of magical cinema is the mere filming, documentary-style, of the magician's practice of sleight-of-hand. And, in Hugo, the movie camera itself, an object of filmmakers' first-hand industrial devising and mechanical tinkering, is of a piece with the movie's automaton, which, in turn, serves Hugo Cabret, the boy who keeps and fixes it, as a kind of living cinema. It's no surprise that Hugo is a clockmaker and son of a clockmaker. He is, in effect, the medical doctor of the mechanical world, a rationalist whose work touches on seemingly divine mysteries, an intellectual whose calculus brings results of a quasi-metaphysical wonder."

"Defying the lowest common denominator strategies of today's popular kids' movies, Scorsese's latest masterpiece will almost certainly be the favorite childhood movie of the next generation of great filmmakers," writes Ryan Brown for Ioncinema. "There are no evil supernatural monsters to battle; Hugo has an antagonist, but not really an enemy in a station patrolman; the real enemy in Hugo is that faced by many people: loneliness, stifled hopes, forgotten dreams. There's a mystery to be solved, but the plot isn't designed for addled video-game brains. Instead, the movie's bountiful scope enlarges in its subtle, patient way until there isn't anything at all that it isn't about."

"Where the best kids' films are breathless and excited, Scorsese's is subdued, even mournful," writes the Guardian's Andrew Pulver. "Perhaps Scorsese — still the supreme poet of middle-aged male rage – just can't connect with children in the way that the likes of Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam can; all these directors' films have clearly had an influence on the way Scorsese has gone about Hugo. Fortunately, things perk up fantastically well in the second half, and I don't think it's a coincidence that it's exactly at the point that the narrative's focus shifts from little intense Hugo towards bitter Papa Georges."

Hugo "comes as close as he ever has to creating a Fanny and Alexander-style autobiographical fiction," writes Slate's Dana Stevens. "This visually and sonically lush picture is never less than a pleasure to the eye and ear (even if Howard Shore's symphonic score is a little too omnipresent)."

"The cast is mostly British, giving the whole thing a Dickensian feel, with many nods to the slapstick of early silents," notes Cath Clarke in Time Out London. "Sacha Baron Cohen plays the villain of the piece, the station's policeman, like a cross between the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mr Bumble the beadle in Oliver! Some of this is broad and the gags wheeze a little. It's all a little too patchy to be truly great and the story splutters along in places, but Hugo's quixotic faith in movies is intoxicating: 'If you ever wondered where your dreams come from, they're made here,' says Kingsley's Méliès."

"Hugo is one of the best train sets a boy ever had," writes Ray Pride for Newcity Film. "Eyes sparkle, the skies dance with snowflakes, the station comes to life on plumes of smoke and steam."

"Hugo isn't perfect," adds the Telegraph's David Gritten. "Still, the impulse that led Scorsese to make Hugo is a lovely thing, and beyond reproach."

Updates, 11/25: "Even when the narrative stalls, the periphery asserts itself as the director's true playhouse," writes Ben Kenigsberg in Time Out Chicago. "A bedroom's art direction has been replicated from an acknowledged influence, René Clair's Under the Roofs of Paris. The automaton's design borrows from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. No film with a tower would be complete without a Vertigo nod, and Hugo doesn't disappoint. More quirkily, the color scheme subtly emphasizes the reds and blues, as if the entire film were being seen through old-fashioned 50s 3D glasses. The filmmaker's roving camera has always suggested a dimensionality inadequate to 2D. (One breathtaking sequence circles around the theft of a croissant.) The real question isn't why Scorsese is joining the stereoscopy bandwagon now, but why it's taken him so long."

More from Marjorie Baumgarten (Austin Chronicle, 4/5), JR Jones (Chicago Reader), Andrew O'Hehir (Salon) and Matt Prigge (Philadelphia Weekly, B+).

For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @thedailyMUBI on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.


Martin ScorseseGeorges MélièsDaily
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.