Hugo | Digital Traditions

by Caitlin Orr. Orr is a Media Arts major in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. This review was written for the Spring 2012 class "Folklore and Film."

Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese, tells the story of an orphan boy who keeps the clocks running in the Paris train station in the 1930s. Over the course of the film, Hugo meets a young girl named Isobel and her aging godfather, who turns out to be the early filmmaker George Melies. Though it is advertised as a family movie – and is to some degree successful as that – the filmmaker's true intentions are to pay homage to early cinema and to highlight the power that films have to capture dreams. In these efforts the film is entirely successful.

At first glance, Scorsese seems like an odd choice to make this movie. This director is well-known for his bloody, violent looks into the dark side of humanity. The idea that he could now switch gears and make a family film based off a children’s novel seems laughable. However, what he accomplishes is surprisingly effective, particularly within the plotline of the orphaned Hugo finding a home and a family outside of the walls of the Paris train station.

The performance of the lead, Asa Butterfield, plays a large part in making this film so accessible to viewers of multiple ages. He manages to strike a perfect balance between adult-like ingenuity and childlike innocence and bewilderment at his predicament. For such a young performer, he has a remarkable ability to emote without coming off as false or cloying. Whether young or old, a viewer cannot help but sympathize with Hugo and become invested in his story. The other performances in the film are good as well, but none of them stick out quite as much as Asa Butterfield’s.

However, the “family film” aspect of this movie falls apart somewhat. The most obvious problem is the length of Hugo. Running over two hours, the movie remains engaging for older viewers, but most children under 12 will probably lose interest after the first hour and a half. Second, as the focus of the narrative progresses from Hugo’s attempts to find a home to a history lesson on early cinema, kids will definitely lose interest. While older audiences will mostly appreciate the more leisurely pace that the plot takes after the first half, it does have the unfortunate tendency to drag in a few places. While Hugo is vastly more family-friendly than Scorsese’s previous films, its appeal still lies with mature audiences.

As cheesy as it sounds, however, Scorsese has created a film that appeals to the inner child in many adults. The film unashamedly embraces nostalgia and the wistful yearning of childhood – aspects that children may not appreciate, but many adults do. Scorsese achieves much of this emotional impact purely through images. From the opening shot, the film is visually stunning. This shot, which sweeps from a glittering overview of Paris through the train station right up to the clock in which Hugo hides, sets the mood for the rest of the movie. Glittering overviews of Paris, as seen through the eyes of the orphan, dominate much of the movie, inviting the viewers into the dreamlike atmosphere. The use of 3D in this movie adds great depth to the picture as well – Scorsese employs this gimmick very subtly. Rather than making objects protrude into the audience, the extra dimension adds to the fantastical nature of the movie.

The visual style used by Scorsese directly plays into his homage to early cinema as well. The film was made in 3D, a very current fad, and thus had to be shot on digital cameras. However, Scorsese worked with his cinematographer to develop a digital coloration for the film that mimics the type of film stocks available to early filmmakers. This is just one detail that reveals Scorsese’s love of early cinema. The director also uses long tracking shots, an impressive attention to set decoration and sumptuous design, and the process of hand-tinting individual frames for multiple scenes. He uses many other classic techniques to point back to classic cinema. In one particular sequence, Hugo repairs a wind-up mechanical mouse that he broke. Once fixed, the mouse comes to life with a complicated dance. However, rather than animate this mouse quickly with CG, the filmmakers decided to use stop-motion animation (the only technique that would have been available to Melies and others). In another animation sequence, drawings on pieces of paper come to life as they fall through the air. These were also animated traditionally, using a flipbook technique. Similarly, a clockwork automaton plays a central role in the film’s mystery. This complicated machine could have easily been produced via computer animation. Scorsese instead had many different versions of the automaton built, many that could actually draw on paper.

These things, however, are just the start of Scorsese’s homage to early cinema. The audience goes on a journey of discovery with Hugo and Isobel as they discover that her aging adoptive father is in fact the early French filmmaker George Melies. Here the narrative becomes infused with the folklore of film: its beginnings, its golden age, and the legend of Melies himself. The children learn about the early cinema from two sources – a professor and Melies himself. The professor does not use a formal lecture setting to impart his knowledge. Instead, he tells Hugo and Isobel about his own experiences with Melies as a boy through story. This story comes off as legend more than a factual experience, helped greatly by Scorsese’s use of an antiquated vignette effect of digital aging of the footage. Melies’ own account of his life and work as a filmmaker is presented in this same manner. The way that Melies learned to make films also has many elements of folklife. He does not attend a formal film school. Instead, he learns his craft by watching and imitating others’ camerawork and film tricks.

The film also explores other forms of occupational folklore, such as that associated with magicians and clockmakers. Melies was a musician before he was ever a filmmaker. His tricks were also learned informally. In the film, this is also how Melies passes his knowledge on to young Hugo. He teaches him in between customers at the toy booth he runs in the train station, almost in an off-the-cuff manner. This is similar to how Hugo learned his skills with clockwork pieces. He was never an apprentice in a formal school. Rather, Hugo would watch his father work and very informally pick up the tradition of clock making that the men of his family have carried on for years.

Though Hugo never makes a particular point of examining the folklife of cinema, I think it is a relevant aspect to consider. So much of modern audience’s experience of cinema occurs purely through Hollywood. There is a definite picture of movie-making as a huge industry that is anything but informal. In fact, the astronomical budgets and obsessive studio control ensures that anything resembling folklife disappears from the process. That would simply be too risky. Here though, just by highlighting this early film history, Hugo provokes thought about what rests at the heart of cinema – not box office returns or big celebrity names or processed consumer products, but instead the ability the medium has to make dreams come to life.

And this is where Hugo finds the most success. As a children’s film, it drags in places and is likely to go straight over the heads of most tykes. As a primer on the history of early cinema, it’s effective but also risks losing the attention of adults who are not cinephiles. However, as evidence and ode to the power of movies to make dream and fantasy a reality, Hugo completely works. One way the movie does this is by showing much of Melies’ work within the narrative itself. These early films were the first ones that brought a dream world to life – such as his most famous work, A Trip to The Moon. Within this short, Melies uses stop-motion, hand-tinting, and elaborate sets to bring his fantasies to life. As astounding as they were to early audiences, Melies’ works bring an even greater sense of wonder and charm to modern audiences, too used to slick Hollywood productions and astronomical graphics budgets. The simplicity and old-fashioned films are even more forcibly dreamlike.

Scorsese’s own film brings back this dreamlike sense as well. The characters and situation are all larger than life and highly stylized. Hugo is no gritty Dickensian look at orphan life in a real 1930s train station – instead it remains a beautiful if unrealistic story of discovery. The power of movies to bring dreams to life also extends to giving viewers the power to dream at all. Melies, now a broken old man who refuses to even let his family see films, has lost his ability to imagine – a story, a film, or even a better life. However, as he revisits his own past, his dreams are re-awakened. At the end of the film, Melies has now completely reconnected with his own past. Before a showing of some of his films, he addresses the audience directly. The filmmaker tells them that for the few hours that they are watching a movie, they can be as they truly are – magicians, fairy princesses, adventurers. This is Scorsese’s true intent behind Hugo, to share his passion for film’s power to create dreams. In this, the film achieves its goal. The folklore of cinema is inextricably linked to this story, and adds great depth to the narrative, bringing a giant industry back to its earliest roots in dreams and fantasy.