...shining light on the media, one review at a time
It’s increasingly difficult to find a children’s film which teaches good values that aren’t undermined by harmful content. Even rarer is a movie aimed at kids that is actually artistic, featuring cinematic beauty and a thematically rich story. So often, films for younger audiences strive for the kind of entertainment that aims to hit the lowest common denominator among modern youths, rather than impacting kids with stories that will inspire, challenge, and have lasting, positive impact.
Yet in director Martin Scorsese’s first family film, Hugo, he manages to attain both these elusive feats. With breathtaking artistry and an uplifting story, Hugo is dramatically different from most recent kids’ movies and (thankfully) Scorsese’s usual productions, but viewers who have the privilege to see this film will be enormously glad it shatters the mold.
Those who are familiar with Scorsese’s usual, R-rated fare are likely to watch this film justifiably poised to cover their kids’ eyes, if they risked bringing them at all. What kind of “family” movie would such a director make?
At least one answer to that question is evident right away—an intriguing and sophisticated one. With a scenario and setting that would normally only be tackled by filmmakers who can animate such visually complex subject matter, Scorsese treats viewers to a unique experience of a world that is at once fantastic, real, beautiful, frightening, harsh, and wondrous.
This world of 1930s Paris is the only one that young Hugo Cabret knows. Orphaned and completely alone, Hugo lives in the walls of a train station, where he single-handedly keeps the station’s clocks running smoothly. This job used to be his uncle’s, but the invariably inebriated man disappeared, leaving Hugo to hide his abandonment from the authorities who would send him to an orphanage. Thus, the clocks must be kept going so no one will suspect that Hugo’s uncle is no longer around.
In between tending the clocks, Hugo gathers small parts to fix his most precious possession—a robotic machine called an automaton. This automaton is one of many mysteries that Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan weave into the story, effectively keeping the audience questioning from the film’s opening sequence on. Hugo has his own secrets concerning the automaton, but even he has no idea how it will connect him with a seemingly bitter shopkeeper named George Méliès and Hugo’s new young friend, Isabelle.
If one remembers that Scorsese is the director, then the aspect of Hugo that isn’t a surprise is the quality of the filmmaking. The difference from typical kids’ movies is obvious from the opening sequence, which features stunning and technically astounding cinematography. While Scorsese opens with his “money shot,” the rest of the film doesn’t disappoint, as the sets, lighting, and camerawork continue at the highest level, where technical prowess blossoms into art.
Like hand-in-glove, the casting of Hugo suits the filming style to a tee, with an array of highly-revered actors. Ben Kingsley is as compelling as ever in his portrayal of the nuanced and mysteriously complicated George. Helen McCrory does well opposite Kingsley, as George’s wife, Jeanne. In almost laughably small roles, other impressive actors add dramatic depth, including Christopher Lee, Jude Law, and Emily Mortimer, while Sacha Baron Cohen, Richard Griffiths, and Frances de la Tour, provide the comedic moments of the film.
The most impressive performance, however, is that of newcomer Asa Butterfield in the lead role. Hugo is a demanding character for a young actor, but Butterfield is up to the task, giving an emotionally authentic portrayal and holding his own opposite his high-caliber supporting cast.
Equally as artful as the cinematography and acting is the writing of Hugo, which has no hint of the dumbing-down so often seen in kid flicks. Instead, this movie challenges children to stretch their minds to grasp deeper concepts and smarter language than they may be used to. Rather than assuming children wouldn’t understand or appreciate thematic depth, Scorsese also builds in symbolism, metaphors, and layers of meaning that enhance the viewing experience for young and old alike. Many kids are eager to grow and learn, and this film will entice them to do so, as it delves into the wonders of the imagination, possibility, and adventure.
Thanks to the sophistication of Hugo, the story is more meaningful than most, allowing its positive message to leave a stronger, more lasting impression. Yes, surprisingly, the ideas conveyed in this Scorsese picture are indeed positive.
Themes of love, compassion, and friendship abound, but the most powerful message is the one that ties all the minor and major storylines together. Hugo leads viewers to this theme himself, as he talks to Isabelle about the importance of finding one’s purpose in life. As Hugo sees it, the world is like a big machine, and just like any well-made machine, there are no extra parts—every part of the machine has a purpose. Hugo believes that a part (a human) that doesn’t know or perform its purpose is broken. The search for purpose, then, even more than trying to end his loneliness, is what drives Hugo in his quest to repair the automaton and to solve the mysteries that surround it.
Whether intentional or unintentional on the part of the filmmakers, it’s hard to miss the implications of this quest for purpose and the thematic concept of the world as a machine. If followed to a logical conclusion, these elements necessarily point to an engineer, creator, and designer as building this “machine” and creating each part for its purpose.
In addition, Hugo is almost biblical in his understanding that knowing and performing one’s purpose is reflected in doing good work. And rather than having possessions, being the best at something, or even wanting a family, Hugo’s greatest desire is to have a chance to “work,” to find and fulfill his purpose. Hugo’s purpose, then, is not to please himself, but to help “fix” the broken people (broken parts of the machine) around him.
Perhaps because these positive concepts are not consciously rooted in a Christian foundation, Hugo does falter in some areas. The issue of Hugo stealing for survival and for his automaton, as he frequently does, is not too much of a concern, since his behavior is severely reprimanded by all the adults who know of it, and he is, at one point, required to work to pay for what he stole.
A bit more of a red flag comes with Isabelle and Hugo’s disregard of authority. At one point, Isabelle expresses her fear that they might get in trouble for what they’re doing, and Hugo responds by stating that’s how one knows it’s an adventure. These two kids often think that they know what is best, no matter what adults tell them, but they do end up experiencing some severe consequences to their actions that help to communicate that they should have done as they were told.
The worst of the content concerns is actually an off-color joke that will go over the heads of most children. Clearly aimed at adults, the joke comes far too close to being explicit about an unfaithful wife and her illegitimate pregnancy, and is unfortunately carried into two scenes.
Hugo is also not faultless in terms of filmmaking, as artistically stunning as it is. No doubt given much leeway because of his well-earned fame and respect, Scorsese indulges in more length than this story needs. A two-hour movie is nearly unheard of for kids, and the attention spans of many young children will likely end before this story does. Worse, the pacing of Hugo suffers at a crucial climactic moment because of some of the unnecessary, slow-paced material that Scorsese places there.
But most of these imperfections and concerns are more than overcome by the overriding beauty and power of this film, as well as its unusually uplifting message. The length and complexity, as well as a few scary scenes, mean that Hugo isn’t the best choice for very young children. Slightly older kids, however, should thoroughly enjoy the mystery, excitement, and imagination of the film.
Far more than most children’s movies, Hugo is also truly entertaining for adults. With the content and style of this film, one almost wonders if Scorsese really had adults in mind as his actual target audience all along. The primary mystery of Hugo leads to a very grown-up issue, which, while it is simplified for kids to follow and understand, is most compelling for adults who are more likely able to relate to the complicated emotions involved. Also woven into this story is an exploration of film history, which adds an educational and fascinating aspect of reality to Hugo (which, again, might be too much for younger kids).
A love of literature, art, history, and education is encouraged throughout this film in a counter-cultural effort to instill children with an understanding of their importance. More crucially, however, Hugo teaches young and old viewers the value of compassion, purpose, kindness, and much more. With excellent, artistic filmmaking, this story shines a light of hope—for an orphan boy looking for purpose and viewers looking for movies as wonderful as God intended art and stories to be.
Check out these similar titles:
The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising (Walden Media, 2007)
The Secret Garden (Hallmark Hall of Fame, 1987)
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Walden Media, 2005)