Entrancing, enthralling, visually stunning. A cinematic paean to the magic of movies. A film history lesson and a cry for preservation from film’s most famous preservation advocate. There is nothing out there quite like it.
What’s good: the look. It should win every art direction and cinematography award available. The camerawork is both beautiful and a technical triumph, sometimes self-consciously so. And that fits a film where there is only the finest line between reality and magic, and sometimes no line at all. As in Avatar, the 3-D is imperative in the viewing experience; don’t see it without the glasses. You’ll miss the excitement, and with that, the meaning.
The film isn’t “about” an orphan boy in 1930’s Paris, though that is the story. It’s about the breathtaking joy of cinema, from first image to last. I was as entranced by the images and camerawork as the first film viewers were purportedly frightened by the realism of L’arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat. For a film person, the treats are endless: the focus on Méliès, the dance of magic and realism throughout, the many in-jokes/homages—from director Scorcese’s surprise appearance to the reference to Vigo’s Zero de Conduite in the character of Trabard. Overarching everything is a sense of awe for the wonder of films that infuses nearly every aspect of the film.
What’s not quite as good: the script. The story is often simply the framework for a film history lesson and a cry for preservation. The magic of the film wins most of the time. But the film slows down, perilously so, in the explanations of who Georges Méliès was/is, and why he and by extension, all film preservation, is important. I couldn’t agree more with that, and am delighted by everything that’s in Scorcese’s heart on this matter. But the film is a good 15-20 minutes too long, and most of that is where the film explains the pioneer of sci-fi and special effects to us and why he needs to be honored as such. The film actually invests too much in Méliès—I can’t believe I’m actually writing this–and removes us from the story we were drawn into in the beginning—a boy, his dad, and the search for the key (and you can read that last word any way you want).
The acting is solid, if not extraordinary. The boy is played touchingly and well by Asa Butterfield, who nearly rivals Elijah Woods in the preternaturally blue eyes department. Even better is Chloë Grace Moretz, who has a major career in front of her. Jude Law is in out and out quickly, but is well cast. Méliès is played by the legendary Ben Kingsley, who bring the necessary gravitas and pain to what could be a sentimentally grumpy/soft character.
If anything is not a trendsetter, it’s Hugo. It stands alone. Many will lump it in with The Artist, and it’s true that both were released at essentially the same time, and both look back to the early days of film. But this essentially looks back further to film’s birth, only momentarily becomes nostalgic, and ends up crying out for a future commitment to do more than remember.