Hugo: How Many Moving Parts does it take to Build a Heart?


Let me say right off the bat that I am sentimental when it comes to movies.  I don’t mean just watching them, but by the idea of them, what they are, and how they guild us.  In my life I have seen a lot of them.  I have watched movies the way some people watch sports, so, a movie that in many ways is about loving movies has some power over me.  It is important that you understand that before you read this because I am almost always bias toward these sorts of things.  I have seen Hugo twice now and had two very different reactions to it.  The first time I saw it was in December of 2011 in the movie theatre.  My wife and I were still living on the east coast and were weeks away from welcoming our first son into the world.  My reaction to that first viewing was all based around the fact that I was about to be a father.  I was very emotional and frightened by what was about to happen, mostly because I had no idea what was about to happen.  Before I watched it for a second time, the other day, I wondered if it would have the same impact on me, for good and bad, it did the first time.

The thrust of the story is that young orphan Hugo Cabret lives in a train station in Paris where he fixes the clocks, something his father, a museum worker who was fascinated by gears, taught him to do.  He was so fascinated that he rebuilt an automaton (a windup writing robot) that he found rusting in his museum’s basement.  Before he can finish it he is killed in a fire that leaves Hugo in the care of his drunken uncle.  It isn’t long before the uncle disappears and Hugo is left to his own devices, literally and figuratively.  He steals food when he can but most important to him is finishing the automaton that his father began.  Hugo believes that when the thing is wound up, it will convey a message for him from his father.  (You see why, I, about to be a father at the time might have been emotionally susceptible to this?)  It is only when Hugo is caught stealing parts from the toy maker in the station that the story really takes off.

The man’s name is Papa Georges and when he catches sight of Hugo’s sketch book, and drawings of the automaton he becomes very upset.  Why he is upset becomes the crux of their relationship and adds another layer of mystery to an already wondrous situation.  Eventually they come to an agreement that Hugo will work off what he has stolen by fixing the wind up toys made my the toymaker, toys made from tiny little parts, the kids made from the pieces of a clock.  Little parts of things play a very important role in this movie.  Everything and everyone seems to be missing something that it needs to operate correctly.  The clocks, the toys, the Station Master’s leg brace and most importantly, the people.  The mystery of what the little robot will do when finished is important but only as important as the journey that it takes Hugo on.

Papa Georges, as it  turns out, is Georges Melies, one of the forerunners in motion picture technology in the early part of the 1900s.  He has his own tragic story about his broken heart that involves his movies, (the most famous is the one where the man on the moon gets a rocket in the eye), magic, and World War I.  The really beautiful thing about the movie is the way it becomes a mechanism, like the automaton, it has many moving parts and they all come together to form one emotional machine.  I am being deliberately cagy about the story because to try to describe is would, to some extent, ruin the journey, and this movie is all journey.

In the end, I can say a couple of things after watching this with my son, the one who was not yet born the first time I saw it.  First, he really liked it.  He sat still through a good portion and was quite taken with most everything that was happening.  However, there is one part of the movie that I will warn you about that is not content related, but artist related.  This was directed by the great Martin Scorsese, a man who has made his life about not only making movies but teaching people about them.  There is a hunk of this movie where he is actively teaching the audience, in this case for younger people, about movies and a piece of their past.  Speaking for myself, I loved this.  Speaking for my son, it was when he checked out.  I watched it happen.  He left the movie, got up, and started doing something else.  The journey managed to get him back in but it was touch and go there for a while and I thought we might have to turn it off.

Hugo is not a short movie, and at 2 hours it lags from time to time, allowing young attention spans to wander.  Now I have no problem with that, my son is five and I feel like his attention wanders with anything over 3 seconds long, I always know going in that that will be the case and I worried about Hugo for that very reason.  Later that day he and I went out to run some errands and out of the blue, in the back of the car he says “Daddy, I really liked that movie.”  I smiled my big happy smile and asked what he liked the most.  “I liked it when the mean man with the dog met the woman and then he was nice.”  Technically I’ve seen this film with my son twice.  The first time he was still in my wife and the movie allowed some small part of me to click into place, to understand my responsibility as a father and be at ease with that.  The second time another part clicked into place.  This one, with him here, and teachable, much different but no less joyous.

Also, Hugo is based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which you can find here.

Grown-ups:5 Stars (5 / 5)
Kids:4 Stars (4 / 5)

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