The antiquities of cinema are rescued from oblivion twice in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo—the first time within the plot, as French archivists in the 1930s bring to light the forgotten films of Georges Méliès, and the second time in the theater where you sit, as lovingly restored excerpts from these same films stretch toward you in 3D. This second rescue is needed to validate the first. As Scorsese understands, the great majority of moviegoers today know as little of Méliès, the mystery man at the heart of Hugo, as did their counterparts eighty years ago. And so, to ensure that the audience will care deeply about this story of loneliness dispelled by a communal embrace, and neglected genius given its due, Scorsese confirms Méliès’s greatness by daring to concoct one of the odder climaxes ever conceived for a holiday blockbuster—a triumphant nonnarrative montage of moving images more than a hundred years old.
Now that I’ve spoiled the ending—having alerted you that insect men will gambol on the moon, mermaids pose in Neptune’s lair, skeletons dance, landscapes erupt and multiple heads of Méliès change into musical notes—I should emphasize that these images are more than restored in Hugo. They’re improved. The best preservation prints, from the deepest French vaults, lack the pizazz that Scorsese and his digital wizards have imbued into Méliès’s films. Not only does the Man in the Moon now hover so close that you feel you could touch him but the motion in the frame has been smoothed, the tinting intensified and the surface cleaned and polished until the antiquities match the modern gleam of Hugo as a whole.
The fantastic requires no such high gloss of illusionism in the source material, Brian Selznick’s illustrated novel for young people, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The book’s densely textured black-and-white drawings, their volumes mottled rather than cross-hatched, evoke an old-fashioned atmosphere, and the deliberate stiffness in the way Selznick poses the figures keeps the action at a remove from the reader—exactly the sort of remove that Scorsese avoids, or rather annihilates. It’s fine for a book to remain apart from you, an object of contemplation as it rests in your hands; but Hugo must satisfy popular expectations of a movie. It pulls you into the images, surrounds you with them and makes you want to pretend that its imaginary, Depression-era city is immediate and real—an act of persuasion that begins when the camera swoops down from the rooftops of Paris to the Gare Montparnasse, along a crowded passenger platform, into the concourse and up at last to a station clock mounted high in the wall, behind whose face the young, penniless orphan Hugo can be glimpsed as he hides and spies.
Magic? Of course. Méliès (here represented by a goateed and crotchety Ben Kingsley) did tricks and created illusions on the French stage before he took to cinema in its early days and did the same sorts of things on screen; and Hugo (Asa Butterfield), the fictitious boy who survives by secretly living in the railway station and tending its clocks, will undergo something of an apprenticeship in magic as he comes to know the elderly, disappointed filmmaker through a friendship with Méliès’s goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Scorsese’s astoundingly successful erasure of the marks of age and technical crudity in Méliès’s films—an act that in effect collapses the past into the present, in a movie that is ostensibly all about history—might therefore be understood as something more than an excusable response to commercial imperatives. It can be justified as the best magic trick of all.