I didn't know what to expect when I rented Hugo. I'd heard good things. I knew it was first a book told primarily in pictures. But I didn't know the story. Having not read the book, I can't compare the two, so this review is based solely on the movie.
Hugo is about a boy who keeps the clocks running in a train station in Paris in the early to mid 1900's. All he has left from the life before his father died is an automaton his clockmaker father and he were trying to fix. The automaton is a little robotic man that is supposed to write something when it works. Hugo's thievery leads to an encounter with a toy shop owner and his young ward: a girl who loves books, wants to go on an adventure, and has never seen a movie. Together, Hugo and this girl fix the automaton and discover a secret with the power to heal a broken, old man and give a lost boy a purpose and a home.
It's a beautiful little story, slowly and artistically woven together to recreate the old magic people felt when watching movies for the very first time. In fact, director Martin Scorsese leans heavily on early movie-making history to leave the viewer with something akin to nostalgia for a time most of us aren't old enough to have memories of, something the book could not have done in the same way.
I did not see Hugo in 3D (as it was in theaters), but this is one case (and there are very few) where 3D might have added to the wonder of the film. There is a scene where a train rushes at you from the screen, and just as the first people to watch a movie jumped in fear that they were about to be run over (never having seen a movie before, what would you think?), a modern audience might jump a little with the 3D effects. The movie is full of these subtle nods to early movie-making history.
A lovely cast of characters (Christopher Lee, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Jude Law among others, including two brilliant child actors) playing charming roles are the icing on the cake, helping to make Hugo a little masterpiece. No wonder it was up for Oscar nominations. It's a heartstring-pulling, sometimes sad yet ultimately happy tale of love, life, and purpose. Of course it appeals to us on a fundamental level.
It is a little slow, but that's part of the magic of this carefully crafted work of art where slices of life in an old Paris train station make you laugh or want to cry, ache with pain and then with joy. If you find the plot to be a little lacking, the emotional depth should make up for it. Four stars.