Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Starring Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield, Sacha Baron Cohen and Chloe Grace Moretz.
An orphaned young boy becomes wrapped up in a mystery involving his late father and an automaton.
Hugo is one of those strange movies. One of those movies that you know probably deserves a couple of those little gold statues, but at the same time you can wander out of the cinema and not remember anything specific about it. It’s a love letter to older cinema, older films that deserves to stay in the memories of film lovers the world over, but at the same time Hugo is forgettable. The older films that it pays obvious platitudes to are cheaper, worse looking affairs. But they also have a lot more magic.
Not to say I didn’t like Hugo. It’s a shame when this happens, but because it’s Martin Scorsese you can’t help but want more. This probably links in to how I sat there wondering for the first half an hour, forty five minutes, wondering when the film was going to get properly started. Which is probably more my fault really, as Marty’s been doing this for longer than I’ve been alive and is still going strong. And it definitely has more than a touch of magic about it. A fantastic dream sequence (though as an Inception fan I had to laugh as Scorsese took us through a dream WITHIN A DREAM) and some great effects work mean Hugo looks very nice.
When the film starts, but before it properly starts because I’m an idiot, we’re presented with Hugo Cabret. A lonely boy who steals toy parts from a shop at the train station where he lives, Hugo seems like a character who would be struggling to be alive, let alone exerting all his efforts into taking springs and screws in order to rebuild an automaton he and his deceased father were rebuilding.
But fortunately, Hugo is industrious enough to take everything he needs right out from under the nose of the Train Inspector (played by Sacha Baron Cohen who is, unsurprisingly, the main source of comedy from the film). Hugo’s attempts to rebuild the only link to his father play second fiddle to the other, less obvious story. His struggles for the future are quickly entwined with Georges Melies’ regrets and pain of the past.
Also unsurprisingly, Ben Kingsley provides a quiet and assured start to his performance as Georges. His acting fast becomes the best, even amongst the plethora of great actors at the disposal of the story. Kingsley’s performance comes to fruition about halfway through the film, drawing me in and helping make Georges’ arc, from his greatness as a silent filmmaker to his eventual fall after war into obscurity.
The surprising turn of the film comes from Asa Butterfield as the titular character. Any worries of under or over acting are assured from the off. If people think Daniel Radcliffe was going to be a star when he started talking like a snake and having faux-light sabre duals with the evil Nazi from Schindler’s List, Asa Butterfield’s nuanced performance should surely mean a star has been unleashed.
Not to mention Chloe Grace Moretz as Isabelle. Even though she’s still in her teens, Moretz has been acting in movies since she was eight, so it’s no shock that she easily gets into the role and gives an assured performance. Tales of her convincing Scorsese she was a British actress might not be hyperbole either, as her accent is the polar opposite of, say, Dick Van Dyke’s, a long time veteran of both film and TV (but who’s biggest part can be boiled down to the words ‘G’day, Mary Poppins!’).
The other performances work very well, even if some of the sub plots are lacking. Richard Griffiths is wasted. Every time the film cuts to Monsieur Frick’s story of love, I kept thinking I was wasting my time watching it, to be Monsieur Frank. Strangely, the Train Inspector’s story of love, however similar, is one that I actually enjoyed watching. The difference I guess was in the little details. It wasn’t even significant that the Train Inspector was a big part of the main plot. I just think his back story was given just enough balance between mystery and well timed reveals.
Scorsese has an obvious love for early cinema, and this is no more illustrated than in Hugo. You can’t help but notice the fact this is one of Scorsese’s most personal movies. Cutting away from and backing up Hugo and Georges’ stories with clips from early cinema, Scorsese is inadvertently showing us why early cinema had such charm. While the production values of Hugo, especially the breathtaking visuals, are outstanding, the clips from early cinema were the most memorable things about Hugo. Instead of caring about Hugo Cabret, I wanted to know what happened to Harold Lloyd as he hung off a clock.
That’s not to say Hugo has no charm whatsoever. The 3-D, which has been given the big thumbs up by James Cameron no less, is good in the way that 3-D should be. It draws you in, but you never notice it from the first frame. It lends the film an enchantment, which works well with the setting and the story itself. In no way is this a 3-D gimmick movie. Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson have created a movie that uses 3-D as good as, if not better than, Cameron’s 2009 money printing film about blue cats (I think it’s called Avatar or something…).
Now while the 3-D didn’t jump off the screen and bite your face off, I just kept wishing for something to raise the pace and provide a bit more excitement. The long running time obviously doesn’t help the cause, especially if you’re seeing this as a potential movie for your kids. This is more of a coming of age/retrospective of a full life story that introduces some early cinema to newcomers, but which would be more appreciated by film lovers.
And that brings an end to this review, in a fashion that neatly mirrors the film. Because Hugo is a strange film. It is good, and in ways better than the films it’s paying credence to. But in other ways it’s worse than the older films, and makes you wish Scorsese had used all this new technology to create something with the smoothness and reliability of modernity combined with the charm and humour of the old.
So while you sit there thinking and feeling deep down that this film is Good and deserves Plaudits because it’s Martin Scorsese and the acting’s great and the 3-D’s amazing and Sacha Baron Cohen in the bath is funny. But at the exact same time you sit there thinking and feeling deep down that the film should be something more. But in the end, if you’re a lover of early film, you’ll be satisfied but not blown away. At least until you go on YouTube and look up Harold Lloyd films.