Film Review – Hugo
Hugo is a movie I wanted to embrace, but found difficult to do. Martin Scorsese is a favorite director of mine and he has an ability to take almost any story and make it feel engaging and as if time has not passed. In that, the film falls short of some of his current modern day masterpieces, but still has strong characters and, for the most part, a strong storyline that he is famous for.
There is a definite sense of time and place, where we can relate to not just the characters but the world they inhabit. The set work gives us the sense of the children’s book that it gets its look from and how much the train station is a character of the film. This is also shown by the way Hugo (Asa Butterfield) crawls around inside the tunnels, working on the clockwork in the station so that he can keep the people of the station from realizing that his uncle is missing and not doing his job. During this time, he also watches the movement of the station, especially the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). Hugo’s spare time is spent working on the automaton that he and his father were working on before his father died. Though, to get the parts he needs, he starts to steal from a local toy shopkeeper, Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), who catches Hugo and takes the notebook on the automaton. Hugo is determined to get it back and try to figure out why the notebook made Méliès so unhappy. He is aided in this by Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), Méliès’s goddaughter, who takes a liking to Hugo and thinks they can have an adventure.
While for the most part beautifully constructed, the film feels stuck between two ideas: what is to be done with Hugo, and wanting to be a love letter to the early filmmakers. The first half of the film is about Hugo trying to get the automaton to work and us getting some back story of Hugo’s life with his father, working on clockwork devices and explaining how he ended up in the train station. Through these moments, we also get some bonding moments between Hugo and Isabelle, as they explore the mystery of the automaton and how it is connected to Méliès. These are all very fun moments that have some great children adventure elements that let us sit back and smile and also get us into Hugo’s character.
Then the film starts to make these more abrupt statements that feel rushed and tacked on. After a great flashback of Hugo with his father about their life together, Hugo randomly admits that his father loved the movies and that they went to them all the time. After what we had just seen, to throw this important fact in when a visual would have made it much clearer feels disingenuous. Then the film goes back to focus on Hugo’s situation, with these weird exposition speeches about how he sees himself as a machine and doesn’t know his place, and, through random dream sequences, shows him as a machine. The idea that he feels lost is pretty evident by his circumstances; he has lost his family, he is living in a train station and is resorting to stealing food while watching other children are getting abducted to go to the orphanage. These moments are possibly for the benefit of the younger audience members, but the fact that these happen when we are at the halfway point is a little late; if it wasn’t clear yet to the children, then they would have been lost for half the film already. Instead, the moments took me out of the film and started to muddy up Hugo as a character, because these are the last major sequences involving him until the end.
The second half of the film is devoted to focusing on the children figuring out what had made Georges Méliès sad and how they can help. This material works much better, in part because Kingsley is great at showing the inner sadness of his character, while revealing little of what is behind it. When the information becomes known about him, the moment feels real and heartbreaking without being emotionally manipulative. Still, in that time many of the other characters are forgotten and end up not having much to do with the finale of the film. The exception is Sacha Baron Cohen, who has a remarkably deep character. From his appearances in his silly uniform and leg in a metal brace, it is easy to assume he is just a comedic villain, who exists to simply send children off to the orphanage. Then, through little comments he makes, bit by bit, he becomes a full character who in many ways is more complex and interesting than Hugo himself. The character who is robbed the most, though, is Hugo, whose story is resolved but feels more like an addition to the film than an actual finish. In the end, there is much that seems almost too easy for such happy results, but for a children’s movie it is understandable, and puts a smile on your face.
If you have children who do not mind sitting through a two-hour film, they will enjoy the fun chases and the adventures of the characters. For adults, the film will be an uneven affair with too many odd moments to have it stay with you. Though Scorsese’s skill remains strong, there is better to come from him. He tried something new and that is always worthwhile. Here is hoping he keeps trying.
Final Grade: B-