5 Reasons Why Hugo is my Favorite Film of the Year

Last night my wife and I saw a new 3D film by Martin Scorsese called Hugo. It is based on the luscious children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. We chose it because it was the only highly rated film available that wasn’t a kid’s movie.

No, in spite of what the marketers say, this isn’t a kid’s movie. It is a film. It has children, and it has adults, and it doesn’t have a bunch of gratuitous “adult” behavior. Instead, it offers perhaps the most artistic experience I have had at a movie theatre in years.

Here are five reasons I loved Hugo:

1. The characters. The title character is a boy who lives in a large clock above a train station in 1920’s Paris. He is an orphan, taken to the clock after his father dies by his uncle, the maintenance man. After his uncle disappears on a drunken binge, the boy continues to maintain the clocks while he learns to survive. Survival involves stealing food and the occasional mechanic part. One day while thieving he has a run-in with an old man who runs a toy booth in the station. The old man, Papa George, turns out to be important.

Both the boy and the old man share a common trait: they are lost, without purpose and longing for a time past. The clock’s gears are beautiful, in a steampunk sort of way. They’re also a metaphor. In one scene, as Hugo works the gears, he explains how mechanical things have a purpose. They know why they exist. Hugo, on the other hand, feels like a spare part, discarded by his father’s death. The old man is also without purpose, crushed by a loss that I won’t reveal. His loss resonates with me deeply. The fates of the two characters are intertwined.

2. The mise-en-scène. The loss the characters feel is evoked by the mise-en- scène, or the film environment, of 1920s Paris, which was a time and place of great loss. It’s hard to imagine now, but pre-war Europe was a period of unsurpassed optimism. It had been literally a century since Napoleon had last waged a major war on the continent. The Romantic era had given way to industrial optimism and naiveté. Many people believed that humankind had actually outgrown war. Men went off to the guns of August full of glory and honor and were buried by machines in wet trenches. The ignorance and bravado was so vast that the Polish actually sent men on horses out to fight tanks.

The Great War of 1914-1918 destroyed more than most of the cities of Europe. It laid waste an entire civilization. Survivors were dubbed the Lost Generation. Artists such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Remarque captured the nihilism and loss. Scorsese captures it, too, using the train station to introduce a series of minor characters all impacted in various ways by this philosophical sea change. The historical context itself becomes a metaphor for the journey of the boy and the old man.

3. Hugo is an ode to cinema. It tells the tale of the carefree days of a new medium, when visionaries explored a powerful new medium with abandon.

A favorite anecdote I use in teaching about communication and media is the story of how early film directors treated film like stage plays on celluloid. The first directors conceptualized film as theater on celluloid, making the classic move of interpreting the new medium using references established in an older medium. The first film innovators realized they could move the tripod around, cut and paste film strips, stop and start the crank on the camera, and other neat effects. They saw the medium as more than an extension of the previous medium and more than a gimmick or novelty, but an amazing new opportunity for artistic exploration.

One of these first innovators was George Mélies, a magician who made over 500 films from 1896 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. His most famous film is 1902’s Voyage to the Moon. In Hugo, that film, and Mélies, play an important role in the protagonist’s life. The film’s director, Martin Scorsese, recreates environments I have longed to see and use in teaching, such as early filmgoers actually ducking and shouting in fright at the sight of an oncoming train.

4. Scorsese has created a 3D work of art. By choosing to work with 3D, Scorsese does the same thing with 3D that Mélies did with 2D – turning a novelty into an art form. Before Hugo, I hated 3D, because every movie I’d ever seen (including Avatar) treated it as gimmick or an extension of 2D film rather than a possibility for new narrative exploration. Scorsese uses the full palette of the Z plane of 3D visual space, creating environments that are luscious and deep. The opening shot sets the stage well. Rarely did I feel like I was at a “3D” film.

By the way, watch for an awesome Scorsese cameo.

5. The wonder of childhood. Hugo reminded me of the wonder of childhood. Somewhere between the little child stage and the angst of youth is a beautiful time of wonder and exploration. My older two children are moving into it now, and because of the life stage of the younger two, sometimes I forget to enjoy it. Hugo captures the awe and wonder of exploring. At one point, when Hugo discovers a mysterious door his friend exclaims, “Let’s investigate!”

I hope to live some adventurous investigations with my older two kids soon.