2011 seems to be the year for well-known directors to take a crack at a kid’s adventure in 3D. Steven Spielberg did it with The Adventures of Tintin and now Martin Scorsese is giving it a try with Hugo. The two films are very different beasts. Tintin plays out more like a classic Indiana Jones adventure film while Hugo tries recapturing the magic of movie making. It’s not exactly the adventure you were probably expecting, but it’s much more meaningful then you’d probably think. More meaningful to its director Martin Scorsese and more meaningful to those who appreciate film as an art form and not something to be taken lightly, without any respect.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a scrawny and smelly little kid who lost his dad (Jude Law) in a fire and is stuck living with his uncle Claude (Ray Winstone); who’s abandoned him. Hugo is left at the train station all alone where he is in charge of adjusting the clocks and keeping everything running on time. In the dark, secluded walls of the train station Hugo secretly works in his free time on an automaton or a robotic puppet for the uneducated. He’s nearly mastered this clunky little machine but there’s something missing, a key that fits into the back socket. The mysterious heart shaped key becomes Hugo’s main attraction, while he searches for other odds and ends to help ready his trusty little robot pal.
An old man by the name of Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) works at a toy shop; tinkering with parts for most of the day. Hugo and Georges know each other as thief and old man. Hugo sees Georges as some grumpy old man that just sits around all day and Georges see’s Hugo as a snot nose kid that steals his way through life. Their paths cross and the rest slowly unfolds.
An old mystery that involves Hugo’s dad and Georges is unlocked with the help of Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz); Georges goddaughter. After Isabelle’s parents died Georges took in Isabelle and raised her like his own daughter. Isabelle and Hugo together have all the pieces to this ancient puzzle. They set out on an adventure to unlock the past with the help of a key, a robot and some nuts and bolts.
Hugo sets itself up as another child adventure story, but this time with master craftsman Martin Scorsese behind the lens, a man known for gritty crime dramas. Scorsese has no problem making Hugo look stunning. The train station scenery is very impressive. The 3D for once actually helps enhance the film. The general color of the film is gorgeous. Each shot is well balanced with a wide array of color and tons of clocks and other mechanics; all surrounded in steam and darkness.
But this is a Scorsese picture. We like visuals, yes, but we want the story! Hugo is a bit sluggish and unfocused. It starts at as your typical kid’s adventure film, but then it turns into a film archive tribute at the half way mark. It’s kind of touching and fun to learn about the actual art of film, but it feels so out of place.
What doesn’t help the shaky story are the characters. They’re all really stiff; especially Hugo. Asa Butterfield is an ugly looking kid. He doesn’t give off any charm or cuteness. He’s the type of kid you’d avoid like the plague had this been elementary school. When the film allows him to expand his talent there is no talent to be found. Scenes involving past memories of his father feel less emotional and more out of place. You don’t feel the need to cry when you hear his sob story; you start to giggle.
At least Chloë Grace Moretz is on the ball. She plays Isabelle with so much charisma and excitement. She’s constantly spitting out big words that she’s just learned from reading another chapter in one of her adventure stories. Isabelle is all about finding a true adventure for herself and Moretz conveys that energy without a problem. There’s a scene in the film where Hugo pushes her away and continues his journey alone and at that point I would have been happy with Isabelle taking center stage. Why care about Hugo; an orphaned boy with no manners or respect for his friends? Isabelle is such a nice person that only wants to have fun, why treat her so badly?
A few other fairly popular actors and actresses make brief and forgettable appearances. Jude Law plays Hugo’s father. He’s in the film for a total of 10 minutes and he does absolutely nothing with his screen time. Butterfield and Law don’t click at all. When Law’s character exits and Ray Winstone‘s takes over the chemistry fails to pop up. Winstone’s a drunk that drinks and yells at Hugo, nothing more.
Emily Mortimer and Sacha Baron Cohen have slightly bigger roles, but I still struggle to say there much bigger than Law or Winstone’s. Mortimer is a wasted character that goes nowhere while Sacha Baron Cohen provides a few laughs, but mostly stays in the background; linking the funny segments together with his one (fully functional) leg antics.
Let’s not forget about Ben Kingsley; who is restrained for most of the film, but slowly blossoms by the end. His character is probably considered the true main star of the show, but his lack of involvement with the first half of the film really lessens his impact on the second half. It’s a shame because Kingsley usually does great stuff when paired with skilled directors like Scorsese.
Hugo is on the whole a mixed bag. Scorsese captures the scenery without flaw, but he dives off into film history gushing a little too much. He has every right to pay tribute to some of the founding fathers of film, but Hugo was billed as an adventure film, more importantly a kid’s adventure film, and the adventure presented in the second half if more of a wowing process for film buffs and people who don’t take movies seriously. Its eye opening and kind of charming, but it doesn’t fit with the first half of the film at all. The first half takes too long to really get the engine running and once it builds steam it takes a dive into the second part. Hugo feels like two entirely different films. Had Scorsese stuck with one or the other I’m sure the end result would have been a lot more impressive. Had he fully embraced the adventure aspect and followed the kids through the walls of the giant train station while they search for clues and get chased by the Station inspector; Hugo would have been a lot of fun.
Or if Scorsese would have stuck with the whole history show and tell of film and how big of an impact it was on the world when originally conceived; Hugo would have been a very informational film that could both inform and awe.
But Hugo is kind of both. It’s not completely one or the other, instead it’s a little of this and a little of that. Parts of it work really well and others fall flat. It’s something that you’d expect a filmmaker on his second or third film to do, but not someone of Scorsese’s caliber. That makes the blow a little worse, but there’s still enough here to warrant a trip to the theaters. The 3D is some of the best I’ve yet to see on a live-action film and even in 2D I’m sure it will visually impress most while keeping the kids attention. I clocked Hugo as a disappointment on my list of must-see fall movies, but I think most will find it harmless and cute and if that’s you then enjoy it! No problem with that at all, but for those of you looking for another classic Scorsese film you’ll walk out underwhelmed.
Hugo – 7.5/10