Hugo Movie Review
Nonetheless, Hugo was a damned fine and absolutely beautiful movie, although I do not agree with it on all points. (Do I ever??)
When we meet young Hugo, he is occupying the clock tower of a train station in post-WWI France. We are given a flashback from the get-go that shows Hugo in cleaner clothes with tidier hair, working with his clockmaker father to reconstruct an automaton, a clockwork figure meant to seamlessly perform human movements. This particular automaton--purportedly the most complex that the clockmaker has seen--is meant to write, but it has fallen into disrepair and is missing key parts, including a mysterious heart-shaped key. The clockmaker and his son (Hugo) commence rebuilding the automaton and are making good progress when the clockmaker is killed in a fire at the museum where he works.
Hugo is introduced to this brutal truth when his drunken uncle comes to retrieve him and takes him to the train station clock tower, where he winds and maintains the clocks and lives in the walls, living hand to mouth. He teaches Hugo his trade and promptly disappears, leaving Hugo to take care of the clocks in his absence while trying to remain invisible: The station guard abhors orphans and takes a particular relish in snagging them and sending them off via paddywagon to the orphanage. Hugo continues working on the automaton--stealing parts from a nearby maker of clockwork toys--and desperately wishes to finish it, believing that the automaton will scribe a message for his deceased father and provide Hugo with a connection to the only person he ever loved. Capture and imprisonment in the orphanage would deny him the chance to establish this last connection with his father.
But while stealing clockwork parts, Hugo is caught by the toymaker and deprived of his father's notebook, which contains plans for the automaton and seems to exert an unexpectedly profound influence on the toymaker, Georges Méliès. Hugo convinces Georges' adopted daughter Isabelle to help him retrieve the notebook, and the two kids embark on an adventure to discover the connection between Georges, the automaton, and Hugo's deceased father.
Their explorations lead them to a surprising discovery: A stage magician by training, Georges was a pioneer moviemaker, creating some 500 short silent films before the outbreak of World War I. His films delighted and inspired audiences with their imagination and his skill with creating special effects on film. After the war, though, Georges found that audiences no longer related to his films, which seemed to come from a frivolously innocent bygone era that the war had forced them to outgrow. Facing bankruptcy, he had to sell his films to be recycled into high-heeled shoes; in a fit of despair, he destroyed also the fabulous costumes and props that he'd labored so long to create.
The storyline itself is imaginative, the type of plot where the viewer can try to piece together clues alongside the characters before achieving the final revelation. But what really caught and held my interest (and has kept me thinking today) were the themes whirling like so many clockwork gears beneath the shiny surface of the story.
Georges was clearly a master artist of the sort that can impart a magic to his work beyond mere illusion. He expects--and without justification, being one of the trailblazers of the motion picture--to achieve immortality, but his fame is cruelly short-lived. Hugo and Isabelle discover Georges' past as a moviemaker from a professor of film studies, Tabard, who believes Georges to have died in the war. Emotionally and figuratively, of course, this is true; he is reduced from a great artist to a toy seller whose name is forgotten to such an extent that his teenage daughter never encounters it a popular culture reference until she goes looking. As an artist myself, I felt Georges' pain keenly, as well as his indignation: Who among us in the genre of "speculative fiction" hasn't been stung by an accusation of frivolity and escapism? It is, in my experiences, one of the most hurtful ways of being brushed aside, to claim that one's art isn't equal to the world that inspired it because that world is too full of cruelty and sorrow, that there is no value in what doesn't constantly dig its fingers into those spiritual wounds. Indeed, alongside the grainy newsreels of the war, Georges' films do look exaggerated, campy, silly; they are the childhood indulgences best not mentioned by the adult having come through pain and into maturity.
As much as that theme spoke to me, another prominent idea in the movie--that everyone and everything has its place, like a cog in a machine, with no extra or useless parts--didn't appeal to me at all. I dislike dualism, the notion that there are two choices: Either something fits or it doesn't. Either something is one's place or calling in life, or it's not. There is no room for ambiguity or acknowledgement of multiple paths in life. Life is represented as akin to jiggling a gear until it drops into place and then one knows that she has found her purpose. As someone who feels called to many paths and recognizes no single destination, I don't believe it is that simple and don't even find the idea that it might be appealing. Isabelle decides to risk her middle-class comfort to help a street urchin she doesn't know because, as she tells Hugo, she senses that there might be an adventure in discovering why a young boy's notebook means so much to her adopted father. Isabelle sees joy in wandering and discovering along the paths of life, not in dropping snugly into a destination, yet it is Hugo's vision of mechanical perfection that the characters ultimately achieve.
As a feminist, I also can't help but to look at stories (including, of course, movies) through the lens of gender. Isabelle is the quintessential female bookworm (much like Hermione) that has become a safe role to give to a female character so that one can avoid the accusation of creating a boys-only club without actually having to hand the lead to a girl. Yet Isabelle very much takes the lead. Having been orphaned and knowing that it is only a matter of time before the station guard catches him and ships him off to the orphanage, Hugo has little to lose and little in the way of options beside working singlemindedly toward the completion of his automaton. He embarks on the "adventure" in order to get back his notebook and achieve his goal all the faster for it.
Isabelle, on the other hand, comes from a loving, middle-class family. She does have something to lose. When she decides to pry into the shadowed past of "Papa Georges," she risks not only hurting her adopted parents--her adopted mother warns her that Papa Georges' past contains too much pain for one as young as Isabelle to understand--but also discovering something that will shatter her innocence and possibly the devotion that she feels for her adopted parents. Few skeletons in the closet are as innocent as an artistic career derailed, and Isabelle's discoveries could transform her family irreparably. Yet she proceeds.
When Georges realizes that he is not forgotten and dares to reenter a world that is again ready to receive his films, though, it is Hugo--not Isabelle--whom he credits with providing the impetus. This was probably the most frustrating part of the movie for me. Hugo had his own motives for pursuing the completion of the automaton that had nothing to do with what the automaton meant for Georges, who we come to learn was its original creator. Only after Hugo realized that the automaton's message connected to Georges (whom Hugo's father admired as a filmmaker) did Hugo become concerned with reuniting the old man and his creation. Until that point, Georges was a means to an end for him: a source of clockwork parts who took a notebook that Hugo valued and wished to have returned. It was Isabelle who took the risks, who sought to reunite Georges with his vision for love of and faith in the old man, who stood to lose much through failure. In the movie's final scene, we see all of the characters in their intended roles: Georges as the visionary filmmaker, Jeanne his wife as the lovely actress and a pillar of support for her husband, Hugo as the entertainer and illusionist ... but what of Isabelle? She wanders through the final scene, seemingly adrift ... but then she settles down and opens a journal. She is to be the author, putting her fictional adventures and impressive vocabulary to good use, the one who brings Georges' and Hugo's stories to the world. In typically humble and feminine fashion, through her adoring gaze we see the triumphs or Georges and Hugo without nearly enough credit meted out to herself.
Hugo was lovely, absorbing, and thought-provoking. I give it 3.85 E.L. Fudge Elves Exist cookies out of 4.
This post was originally posted on Dreamwidth and, using my Felagundish Elf magic, crossposted to LiveJournal. You can comment here or there!