Any other seventeen year old can see that the paternal figures in Hugo represent a cultural fatherhood as it does with a biological one. That our eponymous hero Hugo’s (Asa Butterfield) status as an orphan living in a train station is a break from that said culture and identity. And his self-appointed mission to fix the automaton that his father (Jude Law) has brought home from the museum where the latter works is symbolic of him repatriating himself. The he in convinced that the automaton has a message for him that stems from the belief that the objects our forbears leave us says a lot about them and ourselves.
John Logan, screenwriter and Martin Scorsese, director adapted this movie from Brian Selznick’s children’s book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” And as a necessary evil, Hugo’s life is full of coincidences, his notebook of the drawings of the automatons catches the eye and anger of a man named Papa Georges (Shutter Island alum Ben Kingsley), who owns the top shop from which Hugo steals. That Hugo can’t even utter why he has the notebook points to how stunted he is. Papa Georges takes the notebook, a part of Hugo’s journey then being to recover it, going to the former’s through a cemetery, a setting so visualized out that it inescapably became overt symbolism.
Anyway, Papa Georges is actually acclaimed silent filmmaker George Melies, almost lost in movie history until Hugo and Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg) rediscover him in the early 1930’s (I imagine a more boring story, Tabard or some twenty-something assistant finding Melies through records or whatnot, but we like this story better for reasons of our own). Pointing out Papa Georges is a case example shows how loss doesn’t only occur through accidents but through adult self-will. He almost shuns movies because he believes that his contributions are no longer wanted, because he’ll never have a comeback because those things aren’t supposed to happen.
Speaking of which, the movie, being from a children’s lit source material, only shows the development and evolution of a child through its connections with the father. But whatever is missing through the Hugo-father-Georges story lines is shown through other story lines and connections within the characters. There’s the limitation or lack of Hugo’s adolescent phase, the loss he experiences or his survivalist induced kleptomania don’t count as that. His adolescent phase is shown through the world falling out of Georges’ movies the same way a person outgrows movies or cultural pieces they used to love as children. ‘Films have the power to capture dreams,’ as Hugo quotes his father describing a movie the latter has seen as a child.
But that fantastical quality is also George’s biggest disadvantage, as most of the children who have seen and loved his films have experienced the war and other misfortunes and have wanted other movies if none at all. The lightest genres they can tolerate are social commentaries disguised as comedies, as evinced by Harold Lloyds and Charlie Chaplins. And time moves on, as sound in movies demand that even those slapstick silent movies have to become relics. Thankfully, not everyone grows into adolescence or adulthood, that Hugo and Rene, instead of sporting battle scars and limps, use their first childhood encounters with beauty and magic to continue into great artistry. Their much derided interests can show the other grown-ups that dreams can come true in a big screen. They even have to remind Georges that.
The second thing missing directly from Hugo as a character but is well and alive through traces around him is the female presence. The only thing we know from his mother is his father’s words of her English provenance. There are slightly stronger examples. Hugo’s love interest Isabelle (Chloë Moretz, her grating accent scaring me of what Les Miserables might be like this year) instinctively chooses to dig up her godfather Georges’ past with Hugo – both calling it an adventure – her precociousness disregards that she can possibly hurt Georges’ feelings and instead views this as her right to know about his past or about anything. She probably chooses this as punishment for her godfather banning her to watch movies.
She lacks the protective instincts that her godmother Mama Jeanne has, but she still has a stake on the resurfacing of Georges’ work, her role as his actress and muse being a great contribution to his work. Rene’s compliments confirm her share within early cinema. There’s also the woman selling flowers in the train station (Shutter Island co-alum Emily Mortimer) revealing to the Station Inspector Gustave (Sacha Baron Cohen) that her brother died in the same war that has gotten him injured. I resent giving masculine-dominated movies brownie points for writing one line for each female character or something (which is an exaggeration I admit but come on, why give Emily Mortimer such a small role?). But these women and men surprise each other with their shared history, and these revelations support and cement the connections that these characters have.
There are a few silver linings to being an orphan (or yes, fan girls and boys, to Jude Law dying. The movie visualizes his death forgettably, as paper-thin fires consume a museum, one of equally paper-thin looking sets. Anyway….). First is the connections that these grownups forge under his voyeuristic eye, that these workers and shopkeepers and regulars organically create a familial rapport. That these are older versions of his lonely self, and that they can cure their anomie.
Second is that Hugo’s orphan-hood allows him to dig twice as hard and in many different directions to discover himself. Let’s think about his direct provenance – he’s a son and nephew of repairmen and he would have stayed that way had these elder men lived. I don’t want to romanticize him living in a train station by himself. The other train station orphan shows what hygienic state Hugo could have been in. But the station also represents multifaceted urban stimuli and he could also have followed the examples of those around him. A cafe owner, a flower sales rep, a station inspector (Gustave also being an orphan), a librarian, an Indian Chief, you know how the Imperial nursery rhyme goes. For a person who belongs nowhere, like an apprentice in Confucius’ world, the choices are endless. And as much as there are people like Gustave who wants to lock him up or the characters who think he’s invisible but there are others like Georges and Rene who give him a chance.
Lastly, I don’t want to sound like I’m belittling repairmen. If anything Georges just saw himself as a box cranker and a vaudeville act – a man with a bigger sense of entitlement would have probably died instead of reducing himself as a toy shop keeper. But as Hugo’s father saw potential in an automaton that the museum didn’t want to display, these stray young characters’ constant search has great results. As much as this movie is about the characters’ returning home, it’s also about appreciating the utilitarian craft, a 20th century fight and attitude towards unappreciated art forms. The other characters have thought as a rickety few hours of escapism, Hugo and Rene’s mission was to convince everyone that they have experienced movies as magic.