I wonder if anyone watching Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough film, Mean Streets—a raw hack into the lives of small-time hoods, gamblers, and whores of New York’s Little Italy—said to themselves, “One day this guy is going to direct a truly magical children’s film.” Cause he has! Scorsese seems to be gaining innocence as he ages.
Hugo is in love with cinema—both the boy Hugo and the film titled after him. And also in love with clockwork, which is fitting for a story in which every turn of the plot triggers another, like gears inside of gears. The orphan boy, Hugo, looks after winding the clocks of the central train station in Paris. He lives in the walls like a rat. He pilfers food from the local merchants; and from the toymaker, the odd gear or tool he needs to keep the clocks running. The real clockkeeper, the boy’s uncle and a horrible drunk, disappeared awhile back and nobody knows that it’s just a kid running things. He has to stay one step ahead of the station master and his Doberman, a pair who live to catch urchins and send them off to the orphanage. Sasha Baron Cohen plays the villain with charm and whimsy mixed in with the menace. Even the Doberman is mostly adorable. Until he snarls.
The toymaker, it turns out, is none other than Georges Méliès, the pioneering filmmaker, long discouraged and retired from cinema, due to the cultural trauma surrounding the First World War. He’s broken, like a rundown machine. You know where it’s going from the beginning, but that doesn’t stop the movie from being a delight from the first second to the last.
The film is a resounding success, in the pantheon of masterful contemporary children’s films alongside Holland’s The Secret Garden and Sayles’ The Secret of Roan Inish—this film has a few secrets too, all about charm and delight. The credit must be shared.
Scorsese is in fine form, knowing perhaps that a film containing scenes from Méliès magical cinematography had better contain some cinematic delights of its own. The first tracking shot through the crowded train station establishes the tone: beautiful, unique, earthy, and brimming with life—sure, ‘life’ as stylized as a fairytale. We are a long way from Little Italy. What might you be looking at, mon petite chou? This is Paris of the imagination, where everyone has a British accent.
Scorsese’s long-time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, has outdone herself. The film is so good-hearted that it might have ended up lacking in suspense, but Schoonmaker has edited thrills into every passage, a good thing for a movie that contains some of the best bits of Harold Lloyd, The Lumière brothers, and Buster Keaton. The music by Howard Shore is gorgeous, infusing every minute with pixielike charm and forward momentum.
The actors are completely engaging, not just Baron Cohen, but Ben Kingsley as Méliès and Helen McCroy as his wife and muse. The children are wonderful without being Disney-cute. The hero, a little emo at the start and cleaned up nice by the happy ending, has the most expressive blue eyes, lucky since he doesn’t like to talk too much. He’s broken too. At the start of the movie everyone is.
Which brings me to who should get the main credit for this film’s success; the writer! The source novel, Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, mixes to great effect the true-life story of Méliès—who really did fall on hard times and have to sell his films to a company that melted them down to make heels for shoes, and really did end up working in a toyshop in a Paris railway station—with his invented story of the clockwork-whispering orphan. When the philosophy arrives, as it always does, dear children, it pours forth bountifully from the characters and their story. There isn’t a single creak in the moral-of-the-story delivery system (the usual spot where movies-with-something-to-say grind to a halt); this machine is well-oiled. It’s a machine to make you feel good and fall deeper in love with magic and machines and movies.
Other Children’s Entertainments That Adults Can Actually Enjoy
How The Grinch Stole Christmas, not the awful movie by Richie Cunningham and the pet detective but the original TV special, is always a treat, thanks largely to Boris Karloff, who voices the Suessian Scrooge and that wonderful song. It’s also short and snappy.
The Secret Garden will expand your heart like the Grinch’s without any sign of presents and roast beasts. Agnieszka Holland is directing TV shows now and it’s such a shame. TV’s gain, film’s loss. She helmed not only this masterpiece, but also Europa, Europa, Oliver, Oliver and Washington Square, Washington Square—strangely marred by a ridiculous ending, but heartbreakingly good until the peewee flophouse descends.
The Secret of Roan Inish is John Sayles doing Ireland. There are women who are really seals or vice versa and there are crotchety people who soften. And the children are industrious and wise without being unreal. It’s a little slow for people raised on Ritalin but if you can relax into its hypnotic vibe you’ll be a better person by the end.
And while we are at kids’ stuff that doesn’t suck, out this week on DVD is season six of the rebooted Dr. Who. It’s the worst season of the best speculative fiction TV series of all time and so still astonishingly good. The first half of season six is wonky, disappointing after five wonderful seasons. But after a midseason break it came back wonky-in-a-good-way.
Three episodes remind us why we watch this silliness: number 8, “Let’s Kill Hitler,” is one of the alternate history mind-blowers they do so well; episode 9, “Night Terrors,” is one of the scare-the-crap-out-of-the-kids episodes, but with a surprise O Henry-worthy twist; and episode 10, “The Girl Who Waited,” is one of the interesting-planet-that-makes-an-interesting-sociological-point-for-our-own-world-and-time episodes and it makes plain that the glory of the current incarnation of the long-running show is Gillian Welch, the finest young actress on television. She’s like a Scottish Pippi Longstocking on this show, but she gets to do some things of real depth. In episode 10 she exists in two time streams and gets to be a middle-age woman version of herself. And the two Amy’s have an argument that’s moving and funny and weirdly beautiful. It’s something to see! By the end of this dumb sci-fi bauble, I’m balling like a baby.
This show is what The Twilight Zone used to be for an earlier generation: imaginative fables for modern man (and very much based on writing. It’s a writers’ show). Only, Dr. Who is funnier—and there’re our lovable regulars, the doctor and his companions, to give it the comfort of a TV serial. If you aren’t completely sold, start with the episode, “The God Complex,” which takes us to a hotel with a bad dream in every room. And one is for you. It’s the cleverest thing I’ve seen in ages. I was utterly delighted. And these days, I’m practically undelightable. Or at least I thought I was until Hugo came along.