This week I watched two movies that unexpectedly shared a common theme. Hugo by director Martin Scorsese, is the story of a young orphan whose quest to repair a mechanical man leads to an adventure of discovery into the history of early cinema. The Muppets features a young man/muppet named Walter, whose quest is to help Kermit, Miss Piggy and the rest of the original characters save Muppet Studios from being demolished. Both movies dust off cultural treasures to save them from being destroyed, and polish them up to a shine to remind us of how magical they were in their heyday.
Before watching Hugo, I was expecting something more in the science fiction genre. I had read about the mechanical man, and imagined a kind of steampunk Pinocchio story. Instead, this movie is a warm, charming stroll into 1920s Paris where young Hugo Cabret lives in a busy train station secretly keeping all the clocks running. He lives in one of the lost apartments within the station walls where he spends his spare time tinkering with, and repairing an old automaton (basically a clockwork robot) found by Hugo’s father (Jude Law gives a nice cameo in Hugo’s flashback) abandoned in storage in an old museum. To acquire the needed parts, Hugo secretly steals from the keeper of a toy shop in the station, Papa Georges (a wonderful performance by Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley), who eventually catches him and forces him to turn over everything in his pockets, including an old notebook. The connection between Hugo, the notebook, and Papa Georges becomes the central mystery of this film, and with the help of Georges’s ward, Isabelle (played by the amazing young actress, Chloe Moretz), Hugo unwittingly discovers that the answer is far beyond what he could have expected.
It’s hard to give a synopsis of this movie without spoiling it, or overhyping the mystery. Despite the fact that the twists in this story are significant, it’s not one of those gasp-inducing shockers where someone’s secretly a ghost. The secrets are relatively mundane ones where characters have left things behind in the past. Similar to the recent Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris (hmmm…. Paris is another popular theme), not only is there nostalgia for one time period (the 20s) but the characters themselves experience nostalgia about an even earlier time. I am not typically a Scorsese target-market (not being a big fan of gangs or tough-guys. However, I do count his The Age of Innocence as one of my favourites). In this film (which many call a “kids film”), he’s definitely created an enjoyable movie that captures the fun of childhood whimsy (you know, where characters intentionally “have adventures”), along with the innocent joy of the early days of cinema. One last note about Scorsese’s masterful directorial skill in this film is that 3D never looked so good. It’s subtle, with very few things coming out at me, but it was so immersive that I really felt like I was in that Paris train station myself. (4 out of 5)
This movie doesn’t go as far back in time as Hugo, but it elicits even more nostalgia to one of my favourite periods: the 80s, when The Muppets were in full bloom. (In fact, some of my laugh out loud moments in this movie were the lines from a character called “80s Robot”: a life-size remote controlled toy robot which spewed contemporary catch phrases — a sadly common thing found in movies from the 80s). At first I was put off by some of the light-hearted surrealism of this movie. Main character Walter is a muppet (hence his devotion to the capital-M Muppets), but he is brother to Jason Segal’s human character Gary. They live in a town called Smalltown, where apparently people sing along and join the choreography when Walter and Gary break out into song at any time. Gary’s long-suffering girlfriend Mary (played by Amy Adams) also sings and dances her thoughts and teaches a class of keener kids in a school that appears time-locked since the 40s. Nevertheless, all that seems prelude to the world of The Muppets, where the real world is mixed up with the cartoonish world of felt puppets — for example, Fozzie works with a Muppet tribute band called the Moopets, Gonzo is a toilet magnate, and Miss Piggy works for Vogue magazine (where she has an icy British assistant played by one of my new favourite crushes, Emily Blunt). The plot is simple enough: The Muppets need to raise money to save their old studios from being demolished by a greedy oil baron (how’s that for an 80s villain?) so they stage a Muppet Show telethon. Contrary to Hugo, there are very few plot surprises in this movie, but it’s a lot of fun to watch for celebrity cameos (at least a dozen of them) and self-referential, inside jokes.
The new, original songs (obviously not including Cee Lo Green’s F— You as performed by chickens — yes, they went there!) were written by Flight of the Conchords‘s Bret McKenzie and fit right into the tongue-in-cheek yet heartfelt milieu of the Muppets. However, when it comes to nostalgia, nothing could beat that moment where the curtains went up and the Muppet Show theme song began (I’m singing it in my head even as I type). I watched The Muppet Show regularly as a kid, but I don’t consider myself a huge fan (I never bought any paraphernalia, if that’s an indication) but still I was easily cued by that music back to my younger self. I’m not sure whether this movie is meant for us middle-aged kids or the ones who are actually still rugrats. Judging by laughter alone, the couple of 3-year olds in front of me were less interested in the movie than their father a few seats over. In the end, if the goal of this movie was to prove to the real world audience (as it did to the in-movie audience) that we all need the Muppets back, then I say it’s about time! (4 out of 5)