The Invention of Hugo Cabret, our family was very interested in the film version. Its director, Martin Scorsese, seemed a great fit for a story so steeped in the early days of moviemaking, so my usual low expectations for adaptations of beloved books were not quite so tempered. We rushed out to see it the day after Thanksgiving. (The boys, of course, were thrilled beyond belief, as they continue to be every time we actually go to a movie theater. It's one of those lovely things to watch that I know won't last forever, or perhaps even much longer.)
The film version of Hugo Cabret, as its shortened title—just Hugo—might imply, has had its story pared down and streamlined. Lovers of the book should be prepared for less depth, complexity, and just plain time given to its main storyline of a orphaned boy who lives in the walls of a Paris train station between the world wars, continuing his vanished uncle's job of keeping the station's many clocks running, and meanwhile trying to repair a complicated mechanical toy that represents, to him, his deceased father.
The movie zips through most of this—Jude Law, as Hugo's father, and Ray Winstone, as the uncle, have essentially just a scene apiece, though both manage to make remarkably strong impressions—to get to the part that, I imagine, is what drew Scorsese to direct the film: Hugo's interactions with the proprietor of a toy shop in the train station. This man turns out to be Georges Méliès, one of the first great directors of movies that told stories (as opposed to merely capturing true-life events on film).
And while it's fair to say that Hugo, perhaps inevitably, falls a bit short of its source material in terms of its main character's own story, when it comes to the Méliès stuff, it is able to exceed it. What were just images in Selznick's book—a still from Harold Lloyd's classic Safety Last!, as well as many from Méliès' own charmingly trippy films—come to life in the film as the full-blown cinema they are. And we couldn't be in better hands for this kind of thing. Scorsese has always been fond of magically capturing real historical events and references in his films—his re-creation of a famous Jacob Riis photograph in Gangs of New York comes to mind—and in Hugo, with the history of film itself to draw on, his excitement is contagious; when Scorsese portrays the excitement and the energy of Méliès's original shoots, we share in Scorsese's (and Méliès's) delight.
Of course, such excitement requires knowledge of the history itself, which means this aspect of the film—probably its best—is more or less lost on the kids. (Though I think Dash, our seven-year-old, got some of the wonder—Méliès' films are pretty magical, after all, outside of any historical context, or they wouldn't have been as popular as they were in their own time.) Happily, even the cut-down version of Selznick's story is engaging enough to keep most youngsters fully engaged; I’d say any child who’s able to fully process the book should have a great time. (In other words, as we should have realized it would be, the two-hour length was a bit much for our three-year-old.)
A great deal of the credit must be given to the actors, who fill out a screenplay that occasionally feels thin—particularly the two leads. Ben Kingsley is ideal as Méliès, able to convey the emotion of this wounded old man with a glance, and Asa Butterfield is a revelation (at least to those, like me, who didn't see him in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, I guess), capturing Hugo's desperation movingly. We found the rest of the cast equally admirable, mostly in roles that the film has built up significantly from the book, presumably in an attempt to lighten things up a bit. (The lone exception, surprisingly, was the ubiquitous Chloë Moretz in the key role of Méliès's niece, Isabelle, whose performance we found forced and even irritating at times.)
So no, Hugo doesn't deliver all the same joys the book did, falling well short of it in some ways. But it also manages to exceed its source in others, and that makes it a very enjoyable family movie. (I think many adults without young children will even find it so; I’m also very curious to know what those without prior exposure to Selznick's book think of the film.)
One last thing: 3D. Like so many movies these days, Hugo was shot in it. While I can see Scorsese figuring that Georges Méliès himself would have found modern 3D film technology pretty damn cool, I have to say that in the end, I didn't really see the point. The effect is certainly remarkable, a vast improvement on earlier, more primitive attempts at 3D moviemaking. But after the first five or ten minutes of "OK, that's pretty amazing," I found that I alternated between forgetting about it and, worse, finding it a distraction from the story. Maybe it’s yet another sign I’m getting old, but I think I'd opt for the 2D version—in fact, I’m seriously considering going back for a second screening in less-distracting 2D.
[Image © 2011 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.]