It’s one thing to write a negative review of a film with very little passion or originality behind it (The Adjustment Bureau) or a film intent upon making itself hateful (The Descendants). It’s quite another to knock a movie that comes from a place of love. I admire and respect Martin Scorsese’s efforts for the cause of film preservation, as it is a media that has seen far too many needless casualties. I also applaud his intentions with Hugo on paper – using cutting-edge technology and a novel device (in this case, 3D) as a call to better appreciate the origins of cinema. Sadly, Hugo is annoyingly precious, pointlessly digressive, and commits a number of formal gaffes that are profoundly below what we should expect from one of the world’s most revered filmmakers.
Our titular hero is a young boy living in a fantastical version of the Gare Montparnasse Station in Paris, France. He spends his time maintaining the station clocks, stealing food and gathering supplies to complete a major project: repairing a defunct automaton, which young Hugo Cabret believes contains a posthumous message from his deceased father. His quest is stopped – and our entry into the tale begins – when he’s caught stealing by the cantankerous toy shop owner Georges, who takes the blueprints for his automaton in a rage and threatens to burn it. The boy’s desperate attempt to regain his notebook leads him to the shop owner’s goddaughter, who possesses a heart-shaped key that will reactivate the machine.
This main plot takes about a half-hour to come into focus, and in between this adventure are several mostly trifling subplots, with our child heroes gushing over their favorite cultural artifacts (“Oh, I just love Treasure Island!”) and meeting an assortment of character actors more than willing to indulge. They also have to contend with the bumbling Inspector Gustav, and we have to contend with his whole backstory and romantic longings, as well as a café owner’s own flirtatious interactions, tiresome dream sequences, and all-too-brief glimpses of Hugo’s past. With one exception (but I’ll get to that in a minute), each narrative detour is a cloying exercise in audience manipulation, piling on aw shucks attempts to try and pad up a thin and familiar story of an adorable moppet teaching a grumpy old geezer how to smile again. Clichés are not always a bad thing of course, especially if they’re approached in an original way, but Hugo is not an example of that.
One major roadblock in the attempted sincerity is the performances. While this may make me sound like a bully picking on a defenseless kid, Asa Butterfield does a very poor job of carrying the movie, and Scorsese makes the puzzling decision to hinge much of the dramatics via close-ups of his blank, unconvincing face. He’s paired up with Chloë Grace Moretz, that princess of precocity, once again playing a perky and whip-smart screenwriter’s invention played with exaggerated affectations when reminding us over and over again that, gee wiz, this is a grand adventure! The adults surrounding them are too enamored with their own parts, and with the possible exception of Ben Kingsley act more like they’re in a theme park attraction instead of an actual movie.
The saccharine fakery is reflected in Hugo’s visuals as well. A huge problem here is his use of 3D, which is far too obvious and distracting in the post-Avatar age to be as commended as it is. Right away he’s showing off this new toy of his, with DP Robert Richardson’s opening shot swooping through corridors and crevices of the station like a roller coaster. Now I am normally a junkie for tracking shots, but here the whole sequence plays out like the most elaborate View-Master ever conceived, with its CGI-mapped locations and people in the background looking like 2D cutouts on a 3D plane rather than objects of actual depth. There’s no physical weight or presence felt, and the desired awe disappears as a result. But that’s hardly the most annoying example of the effect. One scene of scattered drawings made me especially feel like I was in the 90’s with the 3D’s cheap “jumping at you” effects. While the legendary Dante Ferretti’s sets are as technically impressive as ever, its gaudy elaborateness becomes wearisome and is made worse by Richardson’s Bathe Everything In Glowing Teal And Orange photography. It’s also not edited very well. Believe me, I am not one who notices specific editing decisions as much as I’d like to, but here the continuity errors are obvious and frequent. The film frantically kept cutting to canned reaction shots to nudge the audience along its predetermined path of whimsy, most obviously when Hugo takes Isabelle to a silent film for the first time.
But just when Hugo seemed destined for the one to one-and-a-half star grade from me, the film flashes back to Georges Méliès’ days as a filmmaker. This extended sequence – detailing the man’s undying love for cinema and the work he put into making his movies the best they could be – is marvelous in all the ways that the rest of the film is not. The Méliès studio is beautifully conceived, and our glimpse into how the medium impacted the world and this one person, as well as how it was cruelly taken away from him is elegantly told and heartbreaking. It is the one part of Hugo that was genuinely enchanting to me, and I wish that Scorsese had just dropped the pretense of adapting Brian Selznick’s Caldecott Award-winning book and had just told this story (which he was clearly more interested in anyway) unfettered.
Everything else, in both plotting and execution, felt overloaded with false, bombastic attempts at “wonder” while failing to let its audience feel anything that hasn’t been telegraphed from a mile away. How could this possibly be what sinks a film about things that are so near and dear to Scorsese? Perhaps his strong personal ties to it are the problem, and in being so determined to have his audience feel the same childlike joy from classic films as he does, he distrusts us to come to those feelings on our own. His emotions are genuine, no question, but the communication of those emotions is not.
Tags: Asa Butterfield, Ben Kinglsey, Chloe Moretz, disappointment, Hugo, Martin Scorsese, nostalgia, Oscar contender