Martin Scorcese directing a family film? What the what? Based on Brian Selznick’s Caldecott-winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret, HUGO stars Asa Butterfield as an orphan living in the walls of a train station in 1930s Paris, who gets wrapped up in a mystery involving his late father (Jude Law), a bitter toy booth owner (Ben Kingsley), and an automaton. Not surprisingly, the Oscar-winning director, best known for his gritty urban dramas, takes a very adult approach to the film, never pandering to the family audience. The magical film is a feast for the eyes, with its luscious 3D cinematography, sumptuous art direction, and colorful costume design. Equally ravishing for the ears is Howard Shore‘s Parisian-inflected score, which weaves in and out of the intricate (and essential) sound design and brings further emotional resonance to this moving tale.
Shore is no stranger to fantasy and that inimitable musical voice is on full display. Many of the themes and motifs revolve around scalar and chromatic lines, with repeated notes and repeated rhythmic cells forming the basis of much of the accompaniment. Combining the mystical strains of BIG with the dark harmonies of LORD OF THE RINGS, Shore creates a haunting hybrid, but with a far lighter touch.
The score floats on a breezy musette waltz. Nimble and carefree, the melody is filled with simple joy and about as far from the depths of Middle-earth as you can get. Poignant yet unsentimental, wistful and emotional, the lilting melody dances along, weaving Hugo in and out his own adventures, as well as those of the shopkeepers and riders passing through the train station. The theme, beautifully sung by Zaz over the end credits as “Coeur Volant” (with music and lyrics by Shore, Elizabeth Cotnoir and Isabelle Gefroy), is one of Shore’s loveliest.
Other characters also get their musical chance to shine. Sascha Baron Cohen’s bumbling crippled station inspector is embodied by a halting, quasi-militaristic theme for bassoon and guitar, usually followed by a frenzied chase through the station. The tender strains of the guitar conjure up nostalgic images of “Hugo’s Father.” A descending chromatic line brings a message at the hands of the automaton. And Kingsley’s broken down Papa Georges shows his true colors with a tender piano and celeste theme.
Scorcese knows his film history and his plea for film preservation is on lush, passionate display in the film. In cues like “The Invention of Dreams” and “The Magician,” Shore gives us brief tone poems of rapidly changing moods as we are transported back to the earliest images of film.
Whether orchestrated for solo instruments or full orchestra, the score is sparingly orchestrated and never feels heavy. The musette provides the Gallic flavor while the Ondes Martenot gives the music a mystical, otherworldly feel. Delicate eighth notes in the woodwinds and percussion give a subtle tick-tock underbelly to the score. The bustling action cues are primarily saved for the chases and spectacular train sequences in the station.
The score is given a prominent (some might say too prominent) role in the film. Utilizing a simple (though by no means simplistic) melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic palette, Shore’s music conjures up a childlike sense of mystery and wonder, awe and adventure. The dark harmonies bridge the mystery aspect of the story, where light meets night, and shadow and mist hide unseen treasures.
Much like Papa Georges (and in turn Scorcese himself), Shore weaves his spell throughout the film. The score is mysterious, humorous, dramatic, and everything in between, showing us a welcome tender side of the composer that we rarely get to see. Shore is a musical magician and HUGO is a magical score.