I wish I loved this more than I did. I hate to break my usual “no personal pronouns” rule again, but there’s no other way to address this. Martin Scorsese’s new film, Hugo, is a deeply, deeply personal film in many ways. The film is based on Brian Selznick’s children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, but the story of a lonely boy fascinated by movies, machines, and magic watching others live their lives is clearly informed by Scorsese’s own childhood. An asthmatic, young Scorsese couldn’t play with other kids for fear of his poor health. His parents and siblings often took him to the cinema, and so a legend was born. Hugo is a tribute to Scorsese’s childhood, a film that celebrates the magical qualities of the movies while emulating many of the films Scorsese loved as a child. It should work better than it does.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a young orphan. His father (Jude Law) was killed in a fire. A clockmaker, Mr. Cabret taught Hugo both the importance and joy in his craft and the magical escapist powers of the movies. Taken in by his drunken, absent uncle (Ray Winstone), Hugo now lives in a
train station, winding up the clocks as his uncle taught him. His only possession is an automaton (a wind-up robot of great sophistication) left to him by his father. Hugo steals wheels and cogs from small machines to replace the automaton’s missing parts, all while evading the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). Paris
One day Hugo is caught by Georges (Ben Kingsley), a mysterious shopkeeper who notices the young boy’s talent for fixing simple machines. Georges takes Hugo on as a helper, and Hugo befriends Georges’ adopted daughter Isabelle. Georges forbids Isabelle to go to the movies, but when Hugo learns that his automaton is linked to Georges’ past, the two partake in a whimsical adventure. They find something incredible: Georges is none other than famous filmmaker Georges Melies, director of the early cinematic classic A Trip to the Moon.
The film’s early focus on the precision of clockmaking and machines is a clear stand-in for film itself. As Hugo and Isabelle discover Georges’ past, the two learn to appreciate the magic and innovation of his films. Originally a magician, Melies used clever camera and editing tricks to tell magical stories of mermaids and moonmen. In Hugo, Melies’ films are thought to be lost forever, with many prints burned during World War I. Scorsese’s love for film shines through: for the process, for the escapist qualities, and for the magic of film storytelling and innovation. By the end, Hugo forms a surrogate family through the magic of film.
The film’s greatest weakness, strangely, is born from Scorsese’s love and devotion for film. Scorsese recreates several classic movie moments and styles, from the “couple separated in comically trifling situations” to the expressionistic silent film-style performances. But where the big performances in Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis were necessary for the medium at the time, here they feel too big and too focused on recreating a different style of acting, and it results in several distractingly mannered performances (Cohen). Other scenes are far too sweet for their own good (Michael Stuhlbarg’s turn as a film historian is a measure too twinkly). And while the film is personal overall, it’s also sometimes frustratingly beholden to modern children’s films (insert dog reaction shot here).
Scorsese’s overuse of digital effects is particularly distracting; the 3-D is impressive and immersive, but the CGI backgrounds and swooping are disappointing coming from a director whose other period pieces (The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York, The Aviator) have wonderfully tactile qualities. In a film about the wonders of movie magic and innovative practical effects, easily generated computer effects seriously undermine the story.
It would be far easier to overlook these flaws if the central character was strong, but Butterfield overuses pauses and never seems quite as fascinated with the world or with film as Scorsese clearly is. Kingsley and Moretz fare better; a better film would center on a more well-defined relationship between Melies and his child. The film’s overwhelming sweetness and sincerity nearly win out, but the whole affair is too long for such a simple and affecting story. There’s no doubt the film will enchant and delight many. It did not quite enchant and delight me.