On Monday night, filmmaker Martin Scorsese gave a sneak preview of his upcoming 3D fantasy film Hugo, based on Brian Selznick’s bestselling novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 49th Annual New York Film Festival.
When the Film Society of Lincoln Center announced the secret screening last week, billed as a “work-in-progress from a master filmmaker,” the internet was abuzz with what the movie could possibly be with lots of conjecture, some of it crazier than the next. As festival director Richard Peña mentioned in his introduction before the movie, this is only the second time the Film Society have shown a work-in-progress screening at the New York Film Festival, the first one being Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
He then introduced Martin Scorsese, who came out to a rapturous standing ovation, but he was mainly there to stress that the audience were about to watch an unfinished film that needed to be color-corrected with unfinished FX and music by Howard Shore. Because of this, we’re not allowed to give you a full or proper review, nor do we have that much we can actually say about it, because we do plan on seeing it a second time before doing so.
The most important thing to know is that Hugo is Scorsese’s love letter to Georges Méliès, the silent film pioneer of the early 1900s who created some of the most innovative films of the time, his A Trip to the Moon, being one of his most iconic and immediately recognized works.
The story follows young Asa Butterfield (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) as the title character, Hugo Cabret, an ambitious young boy living inside the giant clock in a Paris train station, trying to fix the automaton his father left to him. He steals parts from a local toy shop owner, played by Sir Ben Kingsley, getting on his bad side, but then, with the help of the shop owner’s young daughter (Chloë Moretz of Kick-Ass), Hugo tries to find the last piece needed to get the clockwork robot working which leads to them uncovering a secret about her father.
Looking eerily like Méliés, both in his younger and older days, Sir Ben Kingsley is fantastic as the betrodden filmmaker whose entire body of work, over 500 films, was rendered to chemicals in order to produce shoe heels after the first World War. Kingsley makes up the emotional core of the film and the bits dealing with the history of Méiliés and showing him at work is the part of the film that’s the most interesting as well. Really though, it’s Sacha Baron Cohen who gets the most laughs as Gustave, the eccentric station master obsessed with finding orphans hiding in the station; it’s a role on par with what he did in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, and there’s a fun subplot involving a light romance with a flower woman, played by Emily Mortimer.
The look of the film and the performances give Hugo a feel like Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen or the films of Jeunet, just to give you some idea of the visual creativity at work. The production design is absolutely fantastic with much of the film taking place in an absolutely fantastical set recreating the Parisian train station, and Scorsese’s first experiment with 3D has his cameras going in and out and all around this world and the clockworks inside Hugo’s clock home to really use the medium to its full effect. It also will be impossible for film fans not to marvel at how Scorsese effortlessly recreates some of the classic imagery from the silent film era.
Hugo isn’t quite a fantasy film in the traditional sense and younger kids may be somewhat bored, but there’s certainly something magical and charming about the film. It’s particularly interesting how Hugo continues whatever is currently in the zeitgeist in terms of how filmmakers are paying tribute to the cinema of yesteryear as seen in The Artist and My Week with Marilyn, which is also what made this sneak preview screening a perfect match for the New York Film Festival.
While it’s definitely going to be an acquired taste, especially for kids, the movie is going to be a great way for parents to introduce their older kids to the joys of cinema, which Scorsese so perfectly captures in every frame of his movie. We can’t wait to see it again and write more in-depth about the movie.