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Hugo leads the Oscars and leaves us puzzled

Martin Scorsese trades murder for magic in his nominated family film

by Katy Littlejohn

Known for iconic films such as The Departed, Gangs of New York, Goodfellas, and Taxi Driver, he was my last pick for the next big family film. Up for the most Oscar’s at this year’s Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Hugo lacks luster when compared to some other titles in Scorsese’s repertoire.

Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) narrates the last lines of Scorsese’s Hugo:

Once upon a time I met a boy named Hugo Cabret. He lived in a train station. Why did he live in a train station, you might well ask, but really what this [movie/book] is going to be about is how this singular young man searched so hard to find a secret message from his father, and how that message lit his way all the way home

This information might have held more power as opening lines instead. So much in this movie is left for audiences to decipher, especially the characters. Their connection with each other is portrayed as one might connect to figures in a beautiful painting. A viewer might feel that there is or should be a profound relationship between them, but they cannot articulate it to each other while frozen. I couldn’t tell you which was my favourite or least favourite character because I found each character’s story to operate on the same level–no one seemed to present themselves as the most important, so I didn’t really know who to care about.

The story itself offered several elements that excited me in the beginning. The story begins by introducing young Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan living in the clock tower of the Paris train station. The first thing that came to mind was an early 20th century Quasimodo. Instead of being deformed, Hugo is an orphan. He winds the station’s clocks and spends his time watching the bustling crowds go about their day. His survival relies on sneaking through the station unseen, to steal food and trinkets from the toy stand run by Georges (Ben Kingsley).

The trinkets introduce Hugo to us as a fixer of machines. His work (besides winding clocks) is to fix the automaton, a machine man that his father, played by Jude Law, brought him before he died. Throughout the film, many possible messages were tested and determined to not be the focus: the concept of ownership—who owns ideas, objects, even people; the merits of books compared to telling stories through film; or perhaps the unavoidable development of technology and its relationship with people. I’ll admit, none of these possible theses are straightforward, which is why I found the first half of the film to be unstructured and lacking focus. The moment I began to understand what I was supposed to care about came when Hugo utters these words, quite eloquently for a boy who never attends school:

Everything has a purpose—even machines. Clocks tell the time, trains take you places—they do what they’re meant to do. Maybe that’s why broken machines make me so sad: they don’t do what they’re meant to do. Maybe it’s the same with people—if you lose your purpose, it’s like you’re broken.

Once Hugo figures this out, the plot begins to come together. Overall, it is a beautifully filmed movie featuring inspired design and some strong performances, notably Ben Kingsley and the young Butterfield. Despite the British accents of the Parisian characters and, at times, despite the messy plotline, Hugo does manage to inspire a sense of magic. This is a great choice for your next family movie night.

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