Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace-Moretz, Ben Kingsley
It seems Martin Scorsese has put me in an awkward position, the ingenious little man that he is. His new film Hugo is indeed very good but sadly it’s not great. And the reason why it isn’t great is hard to explain without spoiling what is basically the big middle-of-the-movie twist. I could always write my review dancing a merry jig around the issue and end up not actually telling you why this is an enjoyable piece of film making and not much more, but that would be unfair to you, dear readers, so instead this review is gonna come with a big fat spoiler warning. Seriously, if you haven’t seen the film yet and don’t want to be spoiled, TURN BACK NOW. But if you’ve seen it or just don’t care about spoilers, here we go…..
Hugo is based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a children’s novel about a young boy living in the walls of a train station in 1930s Paris, dodging the mustache-twirling station inspector, winding the clocks and slowly reassembling a clockwork automaton found by his now-deceased father. It’s a definite departure for Scorsese, and if you want your fill of cursing and mob-related violence, you’ll probably want to go to the next theater over and watch The Muppets.
The first forty minutes or so convey this beautifully. The soundtrack is rife with accordions, the clockwork world of the train station’s inner workings is a beauty to behold and the set design, costumes and overall visual aesthetic make this seem more like a fantasy world than any accurate historical depiction.
The titular Hugo is played by relative newcomer Asa Butterfield (who looks so much like a young Elijah Wood it’s rather spooky) and he does a pretty good job of it, conveying his character without much dialogue in the opening scenes. Ben Kingsley plays the elderly toyshop owner who Hugo must work for and Chloe Moretz plays Isabelle, Kingsley’s god-daughter who befriends Hugo and starts to break him out of his shell. Rounding out the supporting cast is Sacha Baron Cohen as the aforementioned station inspector who does a passable job, though his accent constantly hovers between British and French.
There are some more minor characters and sub plots, including a kind of sub-sub-plot about a man trying to court a woman in the train station that plays out like an episodic silent film (remember that). Returning to the main plot, Hugo and Isabelle embark on a typical adventure to restore Hugo’s clockwork friend to working order, which leads them to a new goal involving Kingsley’s character, and that’s where those spoilers come in. Seriously, last chance.
So as it turns out, Kingsley is actually playing Georges Melies, one of the (if not THE) most influential figures of the early days of cinema. Melies was part filmmaker, part magician, using never-before-seen camera tricks and other newly invented special effects to create flights of fancy the movie-going audience had never seen before. He essentially invented ‘genre’ film making.
But Melies fell on hard times in later life. After World War One, interest in flights of fancy dropped, and combined with him being essentially pirated by Thomas Edison (Historical lesson kiddies: Thomas Edison was a lying, thieving crook), Melies was left bankrupt and faded into obscurity for some time. This is where things kind of shift. Once the secret is out, the film stops being about Hugo almost entirely and changes gears to a whimsical Melies biopic, and it becomes clear that this is what Scorsese was really interested in from the get-go.
I would say that it’s a case of competing narratives, but that would honestly be a lie. There is no competition, when Melies comes in, Hugo becomes his movie, and this is suddenly revealed to be less of a fanciful family romp and more of a love letter to silent films and one of the silent era’s greatest figures.
There are whole mountains of exposition about the early days of film, and the cast is joined by a (boring) film historian and Melies fan-boy who might as well wear a shirt reading (I am the director’s stand-in character). Now, for film nerds like me this is an interesting twist. But bear in mind, this is a children/family movie, and once we get to that mid-point, a lot of the children in the audience are probably gonna be nodding off. The film does somewhat return to the energy and action that defined the first act, but it feels rushed and almost begrudging, like the film resents being torn away from its extended hero-worship.
Now I know what you’re saying, this is an adaptation of a book so you can’t lay ALL of this at the feet of the filmmakers. Well to an extent, sure you can. There is an energy and some fantastic direction on display in that first act, but once we get to the big reveal, it becomes all too clear where the director’s interests were the whole time. The film bears all the nagging indicators of an adaptation, as well.
I failed to mention earlier that Christopher Lee is actually in this film, and his contribution is basically bugger-all. He plays a bookshop owner who points the kids in the right direction once and occasionally reappears to offer cryptic advice that never really comes up again. The novel was doubtlessly more well-rounded but when it came time to choose was the real focus was, there was no contest.
Don’t get me wrong, I really liked Hugo. For one thing it may have the best use of 3D in a movie EVER. But overall it is a fractured film, torn between its promise of fanciful, kid friendly fun and its real interest of offering a history lesson in silent film and one architects of film making in general.