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HUGO’s surprising twist raises it above the average PG film

Posted on December 20th, 2011
Posted on December 20th, 2011

by Coop Cooper

Even the plot of “Hugo” is a mystery.

Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is a clever orphan in post-World War I Paris who lives in the clock fixtures of a train station. He spends his time spying on the various kiosk vendors, especially a mean toy merchant (Ben Kingsley) whom he steals mechanical parts from. He filches these parts to repair a broken robotic automaton his deceased watchmaker father (Jude Law) was repairing when he died. When caught by the toymaker, he begins a tenuous apprenticeship and a fast friendship with the toymaker’s pretty ward (Chloe Moretz). As Hugo begins to unravel the mystery of the automaton, he uncovers an unexpected secret. This secret will prove important to modern history once revealed; however, an overzealous station security guard (Sacha Baron Cohen) with a dislike of thieving orphans threatens to put Hugo in the poor house before he can complete his mission.

Until the second half, “Hugo” plays out like a whimsical children’s film, but the rewarding payoffs do not happen until the second half when the plot of the story is finally revealed. “Hugo” is actually a sweet-natured, fictionalized biography of one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live. To tell anymore might completely ruin the film, but I must admit it takes a long time to get there. While it doesn’t contain anything scary or inappropriate for children, I can’t imagine many kids under the age of twelve having much patience to sit through all of the film or even comprehend the cerebral storyline or the true-life history behind it.

This is, in fact, a film for film lovers. Based on a book by Brian Selznick, director Martin Scorsese took his admiration for the subject matter and crafted a neat story that film fans will find both surprising and lovable. It reminded me of movies such as “Ed Wood,” “Shadow of the Vampire” and “Matinee” which fictionalized other beloved filmmakers, except “Hugo” is presented in such a way to make it accessible for younger viewers… if they cared to see it. The problem is that most youngsters don’t have any exposure or interest in silent films. I know firsthand because I tried to show them to high school classes, resulting in many students tuning out or falling asleep. It did appeal to some of the honor students so I can’t claim the effort was a total loss, but this truism makes it hard to believe that “Hugo” will become any sort of box office success.

I do feel the film has the potential to gain a loyal cult following. Using “Shadow of the Vampire” as an example (a film from 2000 that suggested the vampire in F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film “Nosferatu” was real), cinephiles did not discover it until many of them came across it on video or cable. The word of mouth spread and the film developed a fan base among film lovers interested in connecting the fictional aspects of the film to the real-life events that occurred. Many critics call this a “meta-film” because it effectively weaves fiction into reality and draws attention to the form of filmmaking. This gives critics, scholars and fans a starting point for film study and discussion.

Hugo could eventually become a film in this special sub-genre, but it often requires a respectable time to make the rounds and find its true fans. I imagine many will see it and walk away unsatisfied, only to see it again years later and finally “get it” after having seen some of the source films it was based upon. They will show it to a friend who will find it especially brilliant. This friend will write a comprehensive essay online about it which will convince others to see it. The snowball will roll into an avalanche and “Hugo” will finally find its audience. Or it might luck out, win a couple of Oscars next year and become an instant classic.

Whichever the case, I appreciated “Hugo” and hope for its success. Above all, I’m really shocked that Martin Scorsese (“Taxi Driver,” “Goodfellas,” “Raging Bull”) made a movie for kids. That’s another surprise I never saw coming.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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