Saturday, April 14, 2012

The magic of Hugo

Hugo is a movie about magic. Not Harry Potter, wand-waving magic, but the magic of technology and movies. Director Martin Scorsese has done a masterful job translating the magic to the screen.

The book from which it comes, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (who has a sort of magic surname, if you know your movie history), is a sumptuously illustrated book set in Paris of the 1930s. I don't want to get too deeply into the story, because anyone who doesn't know the story will be as dazzled as I was. Hugo Cabret is an orphan who has set up a secret residence in the clocks of the Paris metro station. Hugo has been taught much by his father about fixing things, and both he and his father (played by Jude Law in an all too short sequence) are working on an automaton, a mechanical man.

Asa Butterfield is the young actor who plays Hugo. The cast also contains Sacha Baron Cohen as the station security cop who chases Hugo, Sir Ben Kingsley as Papa Georges, who hides a past painful to him, and Chloë Grace Moretz, the young actress who did a brilliant job as a vampire in Let Me In. I reviewed that film here.

A film lover and historian as well as a filmmaker, Scorsese has made a PG-rated film which doesn't depend on any sex, violence or profanity to tell its story. But it does use extensive special effects, and that's where the magic of technology comes in. When I saw the opening scene, which is a fast tracking shot through the metro station, I wondered how it was done. A note in the end credits says that scene was done by Industrial Light and Magic. I'm sure much of the film was done in front of green screens, but the storytelling is such we're less aware of the part CGI plays.

I think a subject like French film pioneer Georges Méliès would automatically attract anyone interested in film magic, where we enter a world not possible except for special effects.

[SPOILER ALERT!] Méliès, who we find out is actually Papa Georges, is reduced to running a small toy shop in the Metro. He believes himself totally forgotten, but thanks to the work of a fan and film historian, Rene Tubard (played by Michael Stuhlbarg, whose face is well known even if his name isn't) some of his more than 500 films are found and restored, and shown to a receptive audience in a crowd-pleasing finale to the movie.

I was disappointed in the DVD, which I got from Netflix, for not having a "making of" featurette. I'd like to see a version with a second disk, perhaps with an extensive look at how the effects were achieved, and perhaps also some of the restored footage of the Méliès films, including any his films that exist in their entirety.

I was also interested to read up further on Méliès, and find that the biographical information in Hugo is close to the filmmaker's life. His second wife, "Mama Jeanne" as she's called in the movie, his toy stall at the Montparnasse station in Paris, the resurrection late in life of his reputation and fame (but no financial reward, regrettably), are fairly well represented in the movie.

Despite my complaint about the DVD not having some of Méliès' films, there are several available online. See the Wikipedia entry on Méliès here.


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