What I’ve Been Watching: Hugo

Hugo movie poster“What makes a great children’s film?”

This is the question I have discussed with many people who have seen and loved Hugo, arising from the almost universal comment: “It’s great, but it’s not a kids’ film.”

Perhaps it comes from the need to justify loving such an imaginative and deep tale; or perhaps it says more about the quality of live action children films we have come to expect; or perhaps it is simply because this is not a film children would enjoy.

The plot concerns an orphan, Hugo (Asa Butterfield), trying to rebuild a broken mechanical man, a project he started with his now deceased father. To get the parts he needs, he steals from a shopkeeper at the train station where he lives. The shopkeeper (Ben Kingsley) catches him and takes away the book with the instructions on how to build the auto man again. However, with the help of the shopkeeper’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretx), they try and get the book back and rebuild the one link Hugo has to his father.

All of which, especially when written down, sounds very much like the plot to a fairly typical children’s film. Deceased parents; mysterious father figure; an unlikely friendship; and mystery a plenty.

What perhaps differentiates it from other kids’ films is the way it interweaves the history of cinema into its plot in the second and third acts. As such, Hugo would be as good an introduction as any to the films and techniques of cinema in the early twentieth century.

You see, what marks a good children’s film from a great children’s film is simply the way it captivates the imagination. When one thinks of the truly great children’s films that have withstood the test of time, one might mention Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, Star Wars or E.T..

What all these films have in common is the way, whether an adult or a child, we get completely caught up in the world they have created. There is also a sense of the mysterious the film leaves us with when it ends. Where is Oz? Where does Mary Poppins come from? How did the Empire start? Where exactly is E.T.’s home and what is it like? It is these unanswered questions that allow us to stay within the world’s these films have created, they allow us to continue to explore them in our imaginations.

It is also what causes some films and characters to lose their allure. The Star Wars prequels don’t work as well as the originals precisely because everything is explained; monsters become less, rather than more, scary once we actually see them (Jaws, Cloverfield, etc.) Mystery and imagination go hand-in-hand and allow all of us, whether adult or child, to remain within the worlds of our favourite films.

Perhaps the appeal of Hugo lies in the classical appeal of cinema itself. The mysterious way reels of frames produce moving pictures; or the imagination so evident in the works of early cinema Scorsese shows us with such affection.

Hugo has all the depth and intellect of the great adult films, but ultimately it has the heart and imagination of all the best children’s films. Whatever ay you slice it, it’s simply one of the best films of 2011.

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