There are many competing family films opening this Thanksgiving week, from the computer animated (Arthur Christmas, Happy Feet 2) to the slightly real (The Muppets), and of course Hugo — with the Muppets movie actually using the least amount of modern movie-making magic to come up with a result.
Martin Scorcese’s love letter to the origins of cinema in Paris actually uses 3-D not as a gimmick or afterthought as so many films do but instead to enhance something that’s actually a historically-based story about Georges Mélies (arguably the godfather of movie special effects) near the end of his life. Aside from some plodding and thinly-veiled speeches about the movies, the result of this movie is a rich and heartfelt tale.
The movie is based on Brian Selznick’s Scholastic book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which imagines a boy in post-World War I France who is orphaned when his father is killed in a fire, forcing Hugo (Asa Butterfield) to work for his drunk uncle winding all the massive clocks in the sprawling Paris train station. Hugo’s only possession is a rusty automaton wind-up man who purpose is to write — if the thing had all its clockwork parts intact. Also, there is a heart-shaped lock that will make it go.
While Hugo pilfers parts from a toy booth propreitor (Ben Kingsley, unbeknownst to the players is the forgotten and broke Georges Mélies), he must stay away from the hobbled Station Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen) and his doberman or risk being sent to an orphanage. Hugo meets Mélies’s also-parentless goddaughter Isabel (Chloë Grace Moretz), who is dying for an adventure away from book-reading. She also wears a heart-shaped key.
Martin Scorcese makes a five-second cameo as a photographer during a flashback of the Georges Mélies backstory. Along with screenwriter John Logan, they load the movie with winks to movie pals like Francis Ford Coppola and unnamed cameos from James Joyce, Salvador Dali, and Django Reinhardt. The cast is filled out with known character actors that could have stepped out of a Sylvain Chomet animated film. Even Christopher Lee is perfectly cast as the nearly non-essential train station bookseller Monsieur Labisse. Some elements and characters are used just to move one plot point or sense of atmosphere along, and even Cohen is allowed to riff in a sub-plot using his typical comedy set-up.
It’s impossible to compare this movie to The Muppets or others out this week, nor is it prudent to say one is a better choice over the other. Hugo is a family film standing alone at the train station, waiting to be picked up and welcomed by audiences. You rarely hope for cold and snow, but if it gets you to stay at the cineplex two more hours longer for this story, then I say let it fly.