There’s a lot of hoopla surrounding Martin Scorsese’s latest, Hugo, which is the director’s introduction to family films, and the only one to utilize 3D technology. Not run-of-the-mill praise, I’ve heard phrases like “timeless,” “a masterpiece,” and “one of the best movies about filmmaking ever made,” being thrown about. And because I have no life outside reviewing movies, I decided to check it out. But unlike my peers, fellow critics, and even Avatar mastermind James Cameron, I wasn’t impressed with this “love letter to cinema.”
Based on “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” a novel written and illustrated by Brian Selznick, the film follows its titular protagonist (Asa Butterfield), who, after the death of his father (Jude Law), is orphaned, and lives in the walls of a bustling train station overlooked by an overzealous patrol (Sacha Baron Cohen). Hoping to uncover a message from his late dad, Hugo attempts to fix an automaton they found together by stealing parts from a toy store run by a reserved and mysterious old man (Sir Ben Kingsley). During his adventures, he befriends Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young girl raised by the same shopkeeper, who holds the key to activating the robot (literally), thus uncovering a dark secret involving an idiosyncratic filmmaker named Georges Méliès — commonly referred to as the first ever “Cinemagician.”
There are positives, and among them are the beautiful visuals. The 1930s Parisian environments looks fantastic, with every environment fleshed out with intricate details and a mystical allure, as each corridor, air duct, and hole in the wall leads to someplace fantastical — creating a distinct dreamlike atmosphere. The train station, where a lot of Hugo is set, has a childlike innocence to it. Also awe-inspiring is the reconstruction of Méliès’ glasshouse studio. The soundtrack adds to this European flair, and sometimes feels as if it best be enjoyed sitting in a smoky French café, whilst munching on a warm pastry, taking elegant puffs of a hand rolled cigarette, and reading Enlightenment-era literature.
But the story builds up to a certain point, and then takes a completely different turn. Most of the movie follows Hugo, who runs around pilfering bread, and trying to fix up his humanoid rust bucket, but once it’s up-and-running, putting to use a programmed talent at sketching and revealing a web of lost dreams, Scorsese starts exploring Méliès, namely by pummeling his audience with stock clips of his works. Quite frankly, the two storylines don’t complement each other (although they both operate on a running comparison between humans who’ve lost their purpose and broken machines, which also have been denied their life’s work).
Scorsese had his heart in the right place. He attempts to remind modern audiences, who may or may not have been exposed to the films of yesteryear, how inventive and ahead-of-their-time they were, but instead of crafting a picture to showcase his deep appreciation for olden cinema, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, in a way, he was also celebrating himself — as if audiences should bow before him for even tackling such subject matter. There’s a self-congratulatory reverence that the director lavishes in, creating a distinct pretentiousness, especially in monologues explaining Méliès’ importance, which have a scholarly brashness to them. And how many times can one directly mention, or even recreate, The Lumière Brothers’ proto-film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, before it becomes a pompous reference for only snobs to appreciate?
Adding to a long list of fatal misfires is the stiff acting. It’s a shame considering Kingsley, who has always been an incredible, albeit overlooked, thespian, delivers an Oscar-worthy performance. What fascinates me about him is how he can portray coldness and then transition to sheer happiness, and still make it look natural. The same can’t be said of the rest of the cast, who struggle expressing one emotion. And while Butterfield and Moretz aren’t the most annoying child actors, they do lack even chemistry for their simplistic friendship to not feel contrived. Cohen, however, has to be the most distracting. The dreadful accent and cheap slapstick that accompanies his character make it no wonder why Lisette (played by a warm Emily Mortimer), the station’s flower girl, is mostly disinterested in him.
Who should see Hugo? I’m not sure, because if I, a self-proclaimed cinephile, wasn’t too amused, I can’t see how someone less versed in film history could be any more entertained by this foul ode to movies.