Hugo (review)

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Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz in Hugo

Clunking Gears

So, Martin Scorsese made a 3D movie. Made a 3D movie for kids. Surely this is something to celebrate. Surely this has gotta be one of the best movies of the year. How can it not be?

Wait: there’s more. Martin Scorsese made a 3D kids’ movie that’s about movies. That’s about the love of movies. And it’s steampunky and rollicking and features a cool girl character, too. How is it possible that I won’t love this movie?
I am disappointed to discover that it is possible. Oh, there’s certainly much to admire here, and much to acknowledge as fresh and innovative. It’s the best use of fantasy 3D since Avatar, as if Scorsese had been holding his breath waiting for the right story and the right milieu to come along for him to finally make 3D worth his time and attention. And here we have dizzying journeys through the grinding gears of clockworks in a 1930s French train station, and cityscape vistas that turn the boulevards of Paris into their own sort of clockworks, and chases through tight places and peeks at the innards of charming automata. There are lovely performances by Asa Butterfield (Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, The Wolfman) as Hugo, the orphan who lives hidden in the train station, and Christopher Lee (Season of the Witch, Alice in Wonderland) as a kindly bookseller, and Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, Body of Lies) as a film scholar who helps Hugo with a mystery, and especially by Ben Kingsley (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Shutter Island) as the toy maker and shopowner Hugo runs afoul of, the man who is the mystery himself.

The hints of the distracting oddity of Hugo comes in its title, which suggests that this is a story about Hugo. (It’s based on the illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.], which does intimate the wider perspective the story takes.) Indeed, for a good hour, we are caught up in the misadventures of this orphan boy: his wacky escapes from the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen: Bruno, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa), his lonely life hidden in the clockworks, and the backstory of how he came to lose his father (Jude Law: Contagion, Repo Man) and gain the strange little proto-robot metal automaton he lives with, which surely would perform some clever and interesting trick if only Hugo had the heart-shaped key required to, presumably, start it.

Hugo’s tale is not, frankly, all that fascinatingly distinct from the many other home-alone stories we’ve seen, though Butterfield is more affecting than most child actors and Scorsese’s visual panache is diverting. But then, just as Hugo’s tale must face a complication if it’s going to be, you know, a story, the film shifts clunky gears — pun most certainly intended — to do a 180 and suddenly place Kingsley’s toymaker at its center. The narrative momentum that Hugo’s journey had built up evaporates, and now we are exploring why Papa Georges — as his ward, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz: Let Me In, Kick-Ass), and Hugo’s new friend, calls him — is so sad, why he won’t return Hugo’s little notebook full of drawings of the automaton, and what secret he is harboring of his past that he won’t talk about.

I don’t want to reveal too much, lest you don’t know what’s coming — I certainly did not — but suffice to say that Papa Georges was once, long ago, involved in the early days of movies, and now Hugo flashes back to tell his story. Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan (Rango, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) lavish a lot of love on these sequences, as well they should — these bits are a gorgeous valentine to the first movies — but it’s like something imported from a distant land compared to where the movie began. Hugo feels like two very different films inelegantly spliced together. It makes me wonder whether Scorsese wouldn’t have rather gotten rid of the kiddie stuff altogether and focused only on the more grown-up geeky side of it all… except that movie couldn’t have been marketed as an escapist holiday treat for families.

I hope I’m wrong about this, but I suspect that the kiddies will be baffled and then bored by Papa Georges’ story, and sorry to see the clever and charming Hugo step out of the spotlight. I was sorry to see Hugo’s travails wrapped up so neatly in the end, as they had to be, since much of the film simply fails to be about him at all — there’s no room for anything other than a quick wrapup. I was sorry, too, to see that the wonderful film-nerd side of Hugo couldn’t be given a more full, more satisfying expression, because the movie didn’t even decide to be about film-nerdery till halfway through. I’m the very audience Hugo secretly wants to beguile, but I’m left cold by it. What a shame.

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