Martin Scorsese tackling a children’s film feels like an odd fit for the man responsible for classic gangster epics and symphonies of violence. But if David Lynch, Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, and Danny Boyle can all make family films that don’t make your brain rot, then why not the greatest living director? Maybe notorious sadist Lars von Trier will be next. Adapted from the award-winning children’s book, Hugo is, as my pal Eric Muller put it, a family film for film historians.
Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan boy living beneath the walls of the Paris train station. He’s secretly the one responsible for winding up all the clocks and keeping time. He has to stay one step ahead of the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who snatches wayward boys and sends them off to an orphanage. Hugo has been swiping clock pieces from the booth of a mysterious toy collector, George (Ben Kingsley). He needs the tiny pieces to fix a metallic man that Hugo and his late father (Jude Law) had been working on together. Hugo is convinced that if he fixes the metal man the automaton will write out one last message from his father. Hugo befriends George’s niece, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), and the two of them explore the various shops and shopkeepers of the station. As they uncover more clues, the kids realize that George is actually George Méliès, the filmmaking pioneer best known for the 1902 fantasy, A Trip to the Moon (the one where the moon gets a bullet in its eye).
Scorsese’s first foray into 3D filmmaking is a rousing sensation for the eyes. The images pop without superfluous objects flying at the camera. The depth of field is nicely and creatively toyed with by Scorsese. Best of all, the 3D enhances the story rather than distracting you. Hugo is a celebration of the advances in moviemaking, and 3D is the latest advancement meant to make the theatergoing experience special. Of course the theatergoing experience has always been special, as the movie indicates. Where else but a theater can we collectively bond with a group of strangers, laughing collectively, feeling the pangs of emotion in unison? There’s a thematic rationale for Scorsese’s use of the third dimension. He masterfully fills the screen with wonderful images, like the massive inner working of clock towers. Scorsese’s signature tracking shots zoom in through the wintry 1930s Paris landscape and train station. A visual highlight is when a trunk of sketches busts open, the papers scattered all over the screen, some moving like flip books, creating the illusion of animation. I can honestly advise people to seek out a 3D showing of Hugo if given the option. For once, it’s worth the extra dough. I only anticipate making this same recommendation for the upcoming Piranha 3DD.
It’s the second half where the movie shows its true intentions, becoming a love letter to the power of cinema and the early pioneers of the art form. Scrosese has long been a historian of the movies, and Hugo is his celebration of the early cinematic dream makers, notably Méliès and his surreal theatrical landscapes. Arthur C. Clark famously said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That’s what early cinema was to a populace that had never seen the likes of moving pictures (we see an early audience fearing for their lives watching a film of a train arriving). It was like a new magic. The turn-of-the century filmmakers like Méliès were charting new terrain as visual storytellers, opening the public to new wonders of the imagination. Simple tricks of editing substitution, dissolves, and visual arrangement could help foster the ongoing illusion. It may be low-rent, like hand painting individual film frames, but it was the special effects of their day. D.W. Griffith once said of Méliès, “I owe him everything.” Scorsese is sharing his passion for the history of the movies and it’s hard not to feel the power of the movies.
But when Hugo gets swallowed whole by Scorsese’s nostalgia, the rest of the plot becomes incidental. The characters, which were not strong to begin with, are given pat resolutions that make you realize how flimsy the characterization is. The movie takes a sub-Amelie route, letting Hugo bring together disparate couples, but you don’t really know anything about these people. Emily Mortimer’s female florist has maybe two lines in the movie, so why should I root for her to get with the Station Inspector? There’s an older couple whose romance is sabotaged by an aggressive pooch. You can imagine the scintillating resolution that awaits. The film history section is honestly the best part of the movie, but it means that everything leading up to that point was just in service to prop up the academic nostalgia. It means that the characters and their mysteries were really unimportant, and they feel that way by film’s end. The movie just grinds to a halt. The mystery of the metal man is that he’s a MacGuffin, a means to discover Méliès’ past. The whole clockwork symbolism can be clumsy, instructing us time and again that people are broken and Hugo feels the need to fix things. Too bad he couldn’t fix the disjointed story.
The actors manage to make favorable impressions when they can fight free of the movie’s educational pull. Butterfield (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) is a strong lead actor who rises above the sniveling preface of his character. He makes you root for the kid even when we don’t really know much about him beyond his Dickensian conditions. The kid has some pretty piercing Paul Newman-esque blue eyes too. Moretz (Let Me In, Kick-Ass) is showing the poise and grace to make it long term in this business. Kinglsey (Shutter Island) is effectively curt with his poorly veiled pain and regret. Cohen (Borat) expands his dramatic range noticeably, adding touches of empathy for a character that could mostly have been arch and cartoonish. He’s still the film’s best source for comedy. Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) makes a welcomed appearance as an expert on early filmmaking, Méliès especially. He serves as the mouthpiece for Scorsese’s passion.
Hugo is a family film that ultimately gets swallowed whole by the filmmakers’ passion. It makes for an entertaining and informative essay on the skill and vision of turn-of-the-century filmmakers, but if people are anticipating a fun story about a scrappy kid and his mischievous adventures, then this is not that movie. Hugo benefits from terrific visuals, strong acting, and Scorsese’s blend of whimsy and innocence without stooping to anything crass or lowbrow. Hugo aspires for the rich, romantic experience of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement) but comes up short. Hugo is at turns charming and magical but as a narrative it is too often flimsy, a wispy thing meant to lead to Scorsese’s love letter. It’s a fine and fitting tribute but even the best and most powerful love letter can only go so far, never mind the hassle of special 3D glasses.
Nate’s Grade: B
Posted on December 6, 2011, in 2011 Movies and tagged adventure, asa butterfield, ben kingsley, book, chloe grace moritz, christopher lee, drama, emily mortimer, jude law, martin scorsese, michael stuhlbarg, movies, oscar, period film, ray winstone, sacha baron-cohen. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.