Hugo and A Trip to the Moon (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Royal S. Brown

Ben Kingsley as Georges Méliès and   Asa Butterfield as Hugo Cabret in  Hugo

Ben Kingsley as Georges Méliès and Asa Butterfield as Hugo Cabret in Hugo

Directed by Martin Scorsese; produced by Scorsese, Graham King, Tim Headington, and Johnny Depp; written by John Logan, based on the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick; photographed by Robert Richardson; edited by Thelma Schoomaker; music by Howard Shore; production design by Dante Ferretti; starring Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Helen McCrory, Emily Mortimer, Jude Law, and Christopher Lee. Blu-ray and DVD, color, 126 min., 2011. A Paramount Pictures release.

A Trip to the Moon
Directed and produced by Georges Méliès; written by Méliès, loosely based on novels by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells; photographed by Michaut and Lucien Tainguy; production design and editing by Méliès; costume design by Jeanne d’Alcy; starring Méliès, Victor André, Bluette Bernon, Jeanne d’Alcy, Brunet, Henri Delannoy. Blu-ray and DVD, color and B&W versions, 15 min. each, 1902. A Flicker Alley release.


I begin this review with two important notes. First of all, there is no way that I can write about this charming film, which moves from a children’s story into something of a docudrama, without revealing a major plot twist that will come as a breathtaking surprise the first time you see Hugo. Since this will be a very positive review, you should not hesitate to watch the film before you continue reading. Secondly, Hugo was shot and projected in 3-D, with numerous individuals, from director James Cameron to various reviewers, positively glowing over the film’s amazingly artistic and dramatic mobilization of that medium. Unfortunately the good folks at Paramount were out of stock of review copies of the three-disc set that includes the 3-D version. Hugo is still a great film in 2-D. But since perhaps its major theme is that of magic—the magic of the movies, the magic of childhood, the magic of a magician’s vision that carried the cinema into a unique fantasy world back at the inception of the “seventh art”—and since the 3-D vistas are an integral part of that magic, the film loses a certain amount of its impact without it.

I open with a quotation from actor Ben Kingsley in Shoot the Moon: The Making of Hugo, the obligatory self-congratulatory featurette that accompanies just about any new film that comes out on DVD and/or Blu-ray these days—“It’s the eternalness about the lost man guided back into life by a child. That is an absolutely classic piece of mythology.” True. But the opposite is equally true: Hugo is about a lost child guided forward into life by a wise and extremely gifted older man. As we discover about midway through the film, that wise man is none other than pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès (it’s pronounced may-lee-ess with no stress accent, folks), played by Kingsley. Méliès, of course, occupies a place in this history of the cinema that is absolutely…mythic. And so in Hugo we have two intersecting mythic journeys, one forward, and one backward, revolving around the true story of one of the film world’s major giants. One can only applaud the directorial vision that allowed Martin Scorsese, with the help of an exceptional cast, starting with Ben Kingsley as Méliès, and crew to seamlessly and engrossingly bring together the disparate universes of a fictional child and a true-life adult creator of fiction.

The film, which takes place in Paris in the 1920s, initially revolves around a preadolescent boy named Hugo Cabret (London-born Asa Butterfield) who has been orphaned when his clockmaker father (Jude Law) is killed in a fire at the museum where he worked. Rather than becoming a street urchin, Hugo is taken in by a besotted uncle (Ray Winstone) who is responsible for maintaining the clocks in one of the several very impressive railroad stations in the city of Paris, in this case the Gare de Montparnasse on the city’s left bank. Abandoned by Uncle Claude, Hugo, who continues to maintain the clocks, essentially has the unofficial run of the busy station, although he constantly risks being shipped off to an orphanage as he is pursued by the uniformed station inspector, played with mustache-twirling malevolence by Sacha Baron Cohen, and his Doberman Pinscher who, in one or two 3-D close-ups, positively steals the show. The one link that Hugo has with his dead father is a slightly less than life-size metal humanoid automaton that Cabret père had rescued from the museum where he worked. The automaton had actually been created with a pen in one hand and “programmed” to dip the pen in a nearby inkwell and write (or, as it turns out, draw), and it is Hugo’s efforts to restore the very visible clockwork inside the metal being in order to (re)animate it that cause him to cross paths with Méliès. (Various characters in the film refer to the automaton as a man, but I continue to see it as rather androgynous, and was gratified to discover, via another featurette, that the face finally chosen for the metal head was none other than that of the inscrutable Mona Lisa, for which evidence suggests that the model may very well have been Leonardo himself.)

Clockwork, then, becomes the point of departure for a good deal of the visual magic in Hugo. The film uses a combination of green-screen work and Dante Ferretti’s set design to create an entire world behind the clocks, a world filled with bigger-than-life ratchet wheels, counterweights, and pulleys that young Hugo must deal with every day as he navigates the labyrinthine spaces and interstices that make up the hidden place that he calls home. And, using often-elaborate tracking shots, the camera frequently follows the young orphan as he negotiates the twists and turns of this other face of the Gare de Montparnasse. Indeed, Hugo opens with a long and very fast tracking shot, created by Industrial Light and Magic, which starts above the snowy streets of a fairytale Paris, dashes with perfect ease through throngs of passengers in the station, and ends up at one of the station clocks, where we see Hugo hiding behind the number four. Redefining time and space by freely and creatively exploring the devices available to contemporary filmmakers, Scorsese and company have, like Méliès many years before them, used the art and technology of the cinema to allow audiences entry into a universe that reproduces the vision and imagination of children without being childish. It is a universe refreshingly free—as was that of Méliès—of what French psycho-linguistic philosopher Jacques Lacan calls the “discourse of science.” And it is within this universe that both novelist Brian Selznick and the makers ofHugo have allowed the very foundations of that universe to emerge via Ben Kingsley’s probing portrayal of Georges Méliès at a point in history when he was all but forgotten, via the re-creation of many of his methods, special effects, and inventions, including the glass studio where he shot his many fantasies, and via actual clips of some of his work as well as from the films of some of his colleagues.

Like one of the many trains that are also a part of the magic world of Hugo, the film brings together the world of Hugo Cabret and Georges Méliès by switching from one mainline track, that of children’s fantasy, to the other, that of the docudrama, in this case the fairly—stress fairly—unembellished story of how the pioneering French filmmaker, having been thought dead, was rediscovered in 1926, which led in 1929 to a gala celebrating his work and the restoration of his rightful place as one of the cinema’s true pioneers. The catalyst for this coming together of two worlds is the above-mentioned automaton, which is actually a part of Hugo’s fictional world, although Méliès did in fact construct such devices. The Méliès who discovers drawings of his automaton in a notebook that he confiscates from Hugo is the financially ruined filmmaker who had either sold off or destroyed just about all of his creations and the artifacts associated with them, and who is, in Hugo as he was in real life, now working seven days a week running a small toy shop in the Gare de Montparnasse. Ben Kingsley somehow brings out the passion lying beneath the very gruff exterior of an embittered old man who nonetheless maintains his dignity and his strength of character.

It would take several more pages to cover all the narrative ins and outs that lead, in Hugo, to the discovery of a print of Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) and the resurrection of a great artist who started off his career in the entertainment industry as a magician. Suffice it to say that it is via the detective work of Hugo and a young girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) who is supposed to be the filmmaker’s orphaned goddaughter (in real life Méliès raised his granddaughter from age seven) that not only the filmmaker’s work but his very existence are rediscovered and recovered. Hugo’s upbeat ending makes the human being in us cheer for the individual while the film lover in us cheers both for the beauty of the historical event and for the privilege of a profound exposure to the work of a great artist.

Paramount’s Blu-ray disc offers a featurette that has been cut up into five separate short films, the most important of which is “Shoot the Moon: The Making of Hugo,” which engages various members of the cast and crew whose continual use of hyperbolic “making-of”-speak ultimately tells us very little about how the unique look ofHugo actually came about. Shamefully absent from this bunch, however, is composer Howard Shore, whose mostly unobtrusive but essential musical score might well be described as the film’s fourth dimension. Particularly haunting throughout is an oft-repeated, sparsely scored, minor-mode, mildly Parisian waltz with some nice chromatic twists and an occasional venture into the hypnotic universe of Philip Glass. In the brief “Sacha Baron Cohen: The Role of a Lifetime,” the British actor came this close to convincing me that he was one of the most monstrous egomaniacs of all time, that is…until he started praising the three dogs who played “Blackie” for their use of the method as they accessed barks from thirty years ago!

During the several times I have watched Hugo and the several excerpts from Méliès’s universally recognized Le Voyage dans la lune (1902) that it shows, it never occurred to me to say, “Hey, this is in color!” In the film, Méliès’s wife (Helen McCrory) explains that members of the crew hand painted each and every one of the film’s frames in order to produce a version in color. And that was the last I thought of it until a handsome, “limited edition” metal-encased box set from Flicker Alley showed up with a Blu-ray/DVD set entitled A Trip to the Moon in its Original 1902 Colors. It turns out that, even though both black-and-white and color prints of Le Voyage dans la lune were shipped throughout the world when the fifteen-minute film was released, the hand-painted color prints were thought to have been entirely lost until 1993, when one of them, in abysmal shape, was discovered at the Filmoteca de Catalunya in Spain. In 2010 a complete restoration of the color print was undertaken under the sponsorship of several organizations. This involved the painstaking reassembling and repairing of each of the 13,375 frames, with missing or irreparably damaged frames taken from a black-and-white print and hand colored one more time. The result is one of the several treasures offered here by Flicker Alley.

What is there left to say about this film that has been constantly referenced in every possible way for the last 110 years? Well, among other things, it is certainly more of a Paris music hall revue cum jungle adventure than a science (hyper) fiction film. What does color bring to the film? Not much, and in fact the black-and-white version, also included here, allows you to see many more details in the fanciful props, costumes, and set design than the color version does. But there is nonetheless something quite mind-blowing about seeing the way that Méliès, all the way back in 1902, was able to add color to his bag of magic tricks. If some detail is lost, an additional aura of fantasy takes shape in the often carefully coded color schemes. The effect that this produces in the mind of anyone acquainted only with the black-and-white version is not unlike what happens in The Wizard of Oz when we see Dorothy emerge from the tornado into a magical (to say the least) land filled with the wonders of Technicolor. You may or may not like the often highly percussive, very offbeat, mostly synthesizer musical score by two gentlemen who call themselves AIR and who can be seen and heard in an interview included here. I reserve judgment.

This “limited edition” also includes a very wishy-washy, hour-long documentary entitled The Extraordinary Voyage, directed by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange, who interview various filmmakers and who got Tom Hanks to explain to us just how Voyage dans la lune led to the Apollo space mission. Infinitely more welcome are two more priceless Méliès films, the three-minute La Lune à un mètre (The Astronomer’s Dream) from 1898, and the nine-minute Eclipse de soleil en pleine lune (The Eclipse) from 1907. The former is filled with the type of special-effect editing—people vanishing and reappearing on the spot—that helped make the filmmaker’s reputation. It also features a typical Méliès human-face moon that becomes positively grotesque as it goes about its gruesome deeds from a distance of one meter. The absolute highlight of the rather static The Eclipse is the coming together, as it were, of a sensual-faced moon with a positively lecherous sun in a kind of cosmic sex act that will have you rolling on the floor. Not to be missed.

Royal S. Brown is a professor in the City University of New York. He is the author of numerous articles and reviews. He is currently working on a book involving Lacanian theory and film.

To purchase Hugo, click here; to purchase A Voyage to the Moon, click here.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4