Yesterday, I saw Martin Scorsese‘s latest film, “Hugo” , the 2D version, not 3-D. Perhaps that was a mistake, but I’ve seen too many so-so 3D movies recently, and our daughter gets bored and takes off the glasses anyway about half-way through, so we went for the 2D version.

The movie was very enjoyable. It turned out to be a different movie from the one I was expecting. I thought it was going to be a fantasy, like Johnny Depp‘s Alice in Wonderland, or The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec.

But it isn’t. Though it includes some elements of magic realism, it is the rather Dickensian story of a young orphan, Hugo, and his relationship with a grumpy old man (Ben Kingsley) who runs a toy shop in the Gare Montparnasse. Who is this old man, who confiscates Hugo’s precious notebook and who is so angry and silent about his past?

The story has several whimsical moments, which seem to have little to do with the action of the story, but add greatly to its charm. Here’s one: Isabelle (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) recites the first few lines of the following poem in an attempt to prevent Hugo from being arrested by another whimsical character, the station Inspector, brilliantly played by Baron Sacha Cohen, whose surrealist dialogue and deadpan delivery (and slightly Cockney accent) reminded me of both Peter Sellars and Peter Cook.

MY heart is like a singing bird

Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;

My heart is like an apple-tree

Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit;

My heart is like a rainbow shell

That paddles in a halcyon sea;

My heart is gladder than all these,

Because my love is come to me.


Raise me a daïs of silk and down;

Hang it with vair and purple dyes;

Carve it in doves and pomegranates,

And peacocks with a hundred eyes;

Work it in gold and silver grapes,

In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;

Because the birthday of my life

Is come, my love is come to me.”


[A Birthday” is reprinted from Macmillan’s Magazine April 1861.]

via A Birthday, by Christina Rossetti.

Hugo lives in the station, taking care of the clocks. This job was actually his uncle’s, who disappeared shortly after adopting Hugo. As long as he keeps the clocks working, Hugo reckons, no-one will know he’s there and he won’t get dragged off to the dreaded orphanage.

As well as his job, Hugo has a passion: restoring an automaton that his clock-maker father (Jude Law) and he were working on before his father’s untimely and mysterious death in a fire at the national museum. Hugo believes that the automaton, a human figure which writes, will have a message for him from his father.

To complete the restoration job, Hugo needs parts, some of which he steals from Ben Kingsley’s toy shop. For these petty thievings he is pursued by both the old man and the station’s inspector.

Hugo’s father loved movies and often told Hugo about the first movie he ever saw, in which a rocket lands in the face of the Man in the Moon.


A Trip to the Moon (French: Le Voyage dans la lune) is a 1902 French black-and-white silent science fiction film by George Méliès

Do you recognize this? If you do, then it is at this point in the movie that you’ll realize it is partly based on real events and people. There really was such a film: it was A Trip to the Moon (“Le Voyage dans la Lune”) made in 1902 by George Méliès.

When Hugo finally gets his automaton fixed, it draws a picture – a sketch of the famous scene of the rocket landing in the face of the Man in the Moon – and signs it George Méliès. Hugo’s accomplice, Isabelle, tells him that is the name of her godfather with whom she lives (she also being an orphan). So they take the picture to him and discover that he truly is the real George Méliès, but for some reason doesn’t want to talk about his past.

Why not? And what exactly is his past, anyway? Hugo and Isabelle determine to find out. They go to the library where Christopher Lee tells them exactly where they should look to find what they are looking for. (How does he know what they are looking for?)

They find a book about George Méliès and meet the author, René Tabard, who tells them Méliès died many years ago and at first disbelieves their story. They finally persuade him to come to Méliès’ apartment, where he first meets Méliès’ wife, Jeanna, who acted in many of his films and therefore knows all about his past.

To cut a long story short, Méliès is persuaded to spill the beans, and come out from obscurity, and René Tabard organizes an event, a retrospective, in his honour.

Many reviews of this movie say this is semi-autobiographical: it is about the director Martin Scorsese and his love of movies. But for most cinema-goers, this is somewhat irrelevant. Who cares? What matters is, does this movie work as a movie, in its own right? Does it stand on its own two feet, as it were?

I think it does. Movies can be great stimuli to the imagination, although they can also work the dull the imagination by providing all the images and sounds that a reader of a book, for instance, has to provide on his or her own. This movie works because it stimulates the imagination:

  • The sets of the spaces where Hugo lives and works, with the clockwork machinery, are staggeringly complex and beautiful;
  • the scenes where Hugo and his father, then Hugo alone and later with Isabelle, work on the automaton, are haunting;
  • the music is great, especially the ethereally sad Gnossienne #1 by Satie (listen on Youtube)
  • the Inspector character adds a delightfully zany touch, especially the poetry scene, where he abruptly stops Isabelle’s recitation in a manner that hints at a deeper sensitivity than meets the eye;
  • the spooky statues that line the street near where Méliès lives;
  • the stunning views of Paris, especially the much-praised opening shot which took 100 years and a teraflop of computers to create, or something  (tho personally I think Orson Welle’s opening shot in “A Touch of Evil” gives it a good run for its lo-tech money; watch it here . (Update: And then there’s the opening tracking shot in Brian de Palma’s Bonfire of the Vanities. Watch it here.)

Watch the official trailer here:

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The true story of George Méliès will interest the adults more than the children who watch this movie. (For the adults, I’ve listed a few points of interest below).  The “true story” of director Scorsese’s love for movies will probably only interest the real movie buffs.

Here’s what I didn’t like about the movie:

  • Although the movie takes place in Paris, no-one speaks any French, but they do all speak British English, which as everyone knows, is the foreign language spoken in France in Hollywood movies;
  • the derailment scene probably cost trillions, but adds nothing to the story (if you’re interested to know the background, Wikipedia will enlighten you); recreating it so that the final shot exactly mirrors the original photo is just showing off, IMHO.
  • although much is made of “creating dreams”, exactly how the story does this is not clear. George Méliès was clearly a genius and a highly creative and imaginative man, but the story is about Hugo (that’s the title; I think that’s a hint), not about George. What Hugo seems to want above all is to get back in touch with his father (he never does), and fix the automaton (he does, but this marvellous act of hard work and ingenuity is passed by as purely incidental to the main story which seems to be about getting Hugo to find out who and what the grumpy old man is and why he’s so disturbed by Hugo’s notebook.
  • In the end, Hugo’s interesting inner life becomes sacrificed to the glory of George Méliès and to his paean, which I thought were the most boring parts of the movie. I wanted to know what will happen to Hugo from now? How will he develop? How will his past shape his future? What kind of character will he have? What kind of man will this child be the father of?
  • Jeanna was also a rather insubstantial figure (Wikipedia is much more interesting on this matter). In fact, George Méliès’s real life is more interesting than what we learn from the movie.

Trivia for adults:

  • There really was a derailment at Gare Montparnasse, in 1895.
  • Jeanna was George’s second wife, and had previously been his mistress and acted in many of his movies.
  • Méliès had a collection of automata.
  • The automaton in the movie is inspired by ones created by the Jaquet-Droz family between 1768 and 1774! They still work and can be seen at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire of Neuchâtel, Switzerland.
  • He saw the first presentation of a movie by the Lumiere brothers and offered to buy a camera from them, but they turned him down because they thought it was just a fad, as stated in the movie.
  • Many of Méliès’ movies were melted down to make boots for the army
  • He really did build a glass studio in Paris (see photo below).
  • He really did live the last part of hsi life in obscurity and penury.
  • He really did run a toy shop in the Gare Montparnasse.
  • In December 1929 a gala retrospective of his work was held at the Salle Pleyel. In his memoirs, Méliès said that at the event “he experienced one of the most brilliant moments of his life.
    Melies's glass studio in Paris

    Melies's glass studio in Paris


George Melies

George Melies, aka Ben Kingsley