Hugo Film Commentary

This week’s Salt + Light Radio show has my latest film commentaries, as well as some interesting interviews with Catholic Digest’s new editor-in-chief Danielle Bean, and  Tom Tomaszek’s new venture,… Check it out!

Since the film commentaries had to be really short this time (two minutes per movie seems to be getting shorter instead of more manageable!)  I thought I’d post a fuller version of my thoughts about the films here. Before I do, however, I just want to gripe about something that’s been annoying me for a while: 3D glasses.

3D glasses are hard enough on people who already wear glasses but try to imagine not only wearing two pairs of glasses, but trying to fit them under…or on top of, a nun’s veil. For now, 3D glasses are big and plastic and definitely not meant to fit under a veil. Whether they sit atop the veil or underneath, I spend the entire movie pushing the 3D glasses back in place or holding them up the entire film.

It’s inconvenient, annoying, and distracting to the filmgoing experience. So, no film’s use of 3D has justified this kind of inconvenience…

…until Hugo. 

Hugo deservedly won five Oscars and just released to DVD this past week. I hope other directors can learn from Martin Scorsese’s magical touch with this new technology. I am no expert in 3D; I can only say that I loved every moment of the film and truly enjoyed the extra depth and perception that 3D brought to my viewing experience–even if I was constantly snatching the glasses just before they slid off my nose.

Hugo is a brilliant film adaptation of the fascinating book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. The film is magical—and not just because of its use of 3D.

is the story of an orphan boy abandoned by his uncle who counts on him to run and repair the mechanical clocks of the train station. All Hugo has left of his father is an automaton that they were repairing together. Hugo becomes driven to repair the little mechanical man, convinced that it will give him a message from his father. Living in the walls and crannies of the train station, an amazing steampunk world, Hugo is unloved and unnoticed by anyone except the station inspector who captures stray children to send to the orphanage.


Both cinematically and narratively, the film is brilliant, telling the story of one of film’s early pioneers, Georges Melies, who created the first fantasies and dream sequences in film, and using technology of the future of film (3D) to do so.

The heart of the story is Hugo’s drivenness to solve the mystery of the broken mechanical man, for which he needs the help of the niece of his nemesis, a shop owner who catches Hugo stealing mechanical parts and, in return, steals Hugo’s notebook. The pathos of Hugo’s situation and his courage to risk everything to solve the mystery effectively pulls us through every twist and turn of the story. This is very much a family film that can be enjoyed by children and appreciated by adults.

Window to the Soul?

Scorsese lights up the screen with his reverence towards cinema, art, the imagination, and storytelling. For this alone, Hugo would be an enjoyable cinematic masterpiece. Yet the film goes a step further. The bleak, mechanical steampunk world is truly beautiful through Hugo’s eyes. Hugo sees everything mechanical in light of the purpose for which it was created. In one scene, Hugo even muses aloud about his own purpose.

The film thus raises the essential question: what is our purpose as human beings? This question holds great pathos because, as believers, we know the God-given purpose, or vocation, of every human being is to love and be loved, and yet this is not possible for Hugo, an abandoned orphan with no family. Yet, Hugo  is so eager for human connection that he spies on the interactions of everyone else in the train station. And, just as he seeks to “repair” the machines to the purpose for which they were created, he also tries to “fix” the broken people he comes in contact with. Symbolically, then, the machines–especially the automaton–become a metaphor for the mystery of the human person and our need for both purpose and connection.

Hugo is one of Martin Scorsese’s best films—and the most hopeful of his works that I have seen. Additionally, this film is enjoyable for the whole family; truly engaging for adults while exciting and appropriate for children who are mature enough to follow the twists and turns of the mystery, as well as handle some scenes of intense danger.


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