The Invention of Hugo Cabret: Book & Movie Review

Feb 25, 2012 | 2012 Articles, Every Other Book, Movies, Terrance V. Mc Arthur

by Terrance V. Mc Arthur

KRL writer Terrance V. Mc Arthur reviews Hugo the book, and the Oscar nominated movie.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret Book Review:

It’s a children’s book.
It’s a biographical profile.
It’s a graphic novel.
It’s a book on film history.
It’s a mystery.
It’s a thriller.

It’s the Caldecott Award-winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, and it’s the basis for Martin Scorcese’s Oscar-nominated film Hugo.

Parts of the book are written words on a page, but whole stretches of it are cinematic sequences of meticulous pencil drawings that wordlessly pan, zoom, do jump cuts, and show close-ups. I can see what would attract Scorcese to this book. It is structured like a film, and it deals with the history of the cinema, especially the life and work of Georges Méliès, the man who first created much of the magic that we now know as motion picture special effects.

I was already a fan of Selznick from his book The Houdini Box, which he enchantingly illustrated. As the story of a young boy living inside the walls of a Paris train station in the 1930’s began to unfold, I recognized elements of facts I remembered from books on the silent-film era. I knew parts of this story! Some of it was true! I knew who that character was! I’d read about this one! I was hooked! The research behind this book must have been phenomenal!

The orphaned Hugo winds and repairs the twenty-seven clocks in the station for his missing uncle, who is responsible for keeping the timepieces on time. Hugo steals food from the local shops and mechanical toys from an old toymaker in the station, toys that he harvests for gears and levers to use in repairing the secret he hides in the hidden apartment: an automaton—a mechanical man Hugo rescued from the rubble after the museum fire that killed his father.

Some elements in the story sneak up on you from the shadows of your mind, suddenly becoming clear. Why does the old man hate the sound of clicking shoe heels? What would the automaton write with the pen he holds if he were repaired? Where is Hugo’s uncle?

So many things intertwine in this book: the gears of the clocks and the mechanical man, the aging toy seller and the sketchbook of Hugo’s father, the young girl from the toy booth and the one-eyed youth who is obsessed with studying cinema, the moon and a strange image of a crying man in the moon with something wedged in his eye…and there is magic. There is always magic, when you’re dealing with the movies.

Hugo—Movie Review

Hugo, based on Brian Selznick’s Caldecott-winning children’s book (with graphic-novel elements) The Invention of Hugo Cabret (see book review above), is Martin Scorcese’s debt of love to the film history.

Scorcese (Scarface, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver) taught in NYU’s film school, and Selznick’s story of a young boy winding clocks and rebuilding a mechanical man becomes a tribute to one of the founding fathers of the cinema, Georges Méliès, who discovered and invented many of the basic trickeries of film special effects, and this movie makes extensive use of one of today’s special effects, 3-D.

Why is Hugo in 3-D? Is it because 3-D is popular, because everybody’s doing it? There is a good reason for using the process, rooted in the history that underlies the plot. One of the points made in the story is about when the Lumiére brothers showed the first motion pictures of a train coming into a station in the 1890s, people were leaving their seats because they thought they were going to be hit by a real train. That same level of illusion is what we experience today with 3-D, flinching as something seems to be coming right at us.

Asa Butterfield (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Nanny McPhee Returns) as Hugo provides a wide-eyed wonder, whether he is repairing clockwork mechanisms, discovering the wonders of Méliès’ work, or spying on the emotional entanglements of the denizens of his train-station world. He is surrounded by a dizzying gallery of amazing acting talent:

• Ben Kingsley (Oscar-winner for Gandhi), as the crusty seller of wind-up toys who might be the key to many mysteries in the story, can seem fragile, powerful, and spritely at the shift of an eyebrow.
• I have always avoided the work of Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, Brüno, Ali G); what film clips I have seen were offensive and annoying. I was appalled to find that he was cast as the Station Inspector, but his portrayal of a World War I veteran with leg braces and an attack dog surprised me. Although he was the butt of some sight gags, his character had a humanizing arc that created sympathy and understanding.
• Chloë Grace Moretz (the girl vampire in the American version of Let Me In) as Hugo’s friend and partner-in-adventure investigating the mysteries surrounding the toyseller, her godfather.
• Frances de la Tour, a wondrously unusual English performer, best known as the giantess love of Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies, as a café owner.
• Richard Griffiths, Tony Award winner, as a chubby shopkeeper in the station.
• Christopher Lee (lots of Dracula movies and Saruman in the Lord of the Rings films) as a bookseller who loans and gives away books and information.
• Michael Stuhlberg (Arnold Rothstein in Boardwalk Empire) as a film historian.
• Jude Law (Come on—I don’t need to tell you who he is, right? He’s Jude Law!) in some gentle scenes as Hugo’s father.

The basic story of Selznick’s book is there, with few alterations. Adapting the novel must have been a daunting job, although some sequences follow the sequential illustrations in parts of the book, as if they were used as a storyboard in pre-production. The colors are rich and shimmery, the 3-D effects become so accepted that a character moving onto the screen from behind you will make you move out of the way, and, if you are not familiar with the works of Georges Méliès, you will be amazed, and you’ll want to learn more.

Check out KRL’s Oscar movie countdown for another review of Hugo & other Oscar nominated movies.

Terrance V. Mc Arthur is a California-born, Valley-raised librarian/entertainer/writer. He is currently writing a stage adaptation of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild for the Fresno County Public Library’s next The Big Read. He lives in Sanger, four blocks from the library, with his wife, his daughter, and a spinster cat.

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