Review: Hugo

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Martin Scorsese’s desire to make a film that his preteen daughter could see has resulted in a minor classic, and though it may not rank up there with Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or Goodfellas, Hugo explores an aspect of Scorsese that I suspect was lingering there along–the celebration of movies as a receptacle of dreams.

Hugo is a family film, yes. It has some slapstick, a Dickensian villain (or, more properly, and no pun intended, a Hugoian villain), mysterious adventure, cute dogs, and has many scenes of wonder. But beyond that, for those who are armed with the knowledge, Hugo is a valentine to the early days of cinema, and specifically to Georges Melies, who made over 500 films but within a decade was largely forgotten.

Set in the 1920s in Montparnasse Station in Paris, the title character is an orphan who lives inside the station, or more specifically, in the walls and clocktowers. His father (Jude Law) was a horologist, but after dying in a fire Hugo is left to the care of his dissolute uncle (Ray Winstone), who is employed as the clock keeper in the station. Left alone, Hugo scratches out a living by stealing food, all the while working on an unfinished project he and his father were involved in–an automaton.

Hugo has to avoid the eye of the Station Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen), who has a brace on one leg and uses a Doberman Pinscher to chase down orphans. Cohen’s character bears certain resemblances to Inspector Javert, of Les Miserables, who becomes consumed by capturing his quarry. Hugo also has a run-in with a toy store operator (Ben Kingsley), who catches him stealing and confiscates his father’s notebook. Kingsley recognizes something in the book, and reacts crossly whenever he sees Hugo.

Kingsley’s goddaughter, Chloe Grace Moretz, teams up with Hugo, eager to have adventures. Together the two discover the truth about her godfather he is the celebrated filmmaker, Georges Melies,  but he has no interest in reliving his past.

Films about filmmaking are common, even when they’re ostensibly about something else. And film critics tend to like these films. Whether the general public will embrace Hugo, I have no idea, but I think it has plenty to offer. For one thing, the production design, by Dante Ferrati, is breathtaking, as he creates the inner walls of the station as some sort of mechanical wonderland. Secondly, the universal appeal of a story of a plucky orphan boy, which goes back centuries, is rendered with aplomb by Scorsese and his screenwriter, John Logan. It is interesting to think that this a film that might have appealed to Steven Spielberg, and one wonders how it slipped by him. But Spielberg, one imagines, would have gone too far, and ladled the sentiment on in layers, while Scorsese and Logan stick with the story, and let the audience make their own conclusions. I do think it’s the only Scorsese film that’s ever brought a tear to my eye.

For those who know a thing or two about silent films, or Paris in the ’20s, Hugo is a goldmine. There are not only references to Melies’ films, most especially A Trip to the Moon, but also the Lumiere Brothers Arrival of a Train at a Station, Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last, and the automaton, who figures so prominently in the story, has a resemblance to the creature in Metropolis that can’t be coincidental.

In addition to plaudits for Scorsese, Logan, and Ferreti, I must congratulate Robert Richardson for his photography, Sandy Powell for her costumes, and the entire cast for their performances. It is a mark of Scorsese’s humanism that he gives his villain, Cohen, humanity, and Kingsley is absolutely wonderful as Melies. Moretz, who is already something of a wunderkind in film, is enchanting, but Asa Butterfield, as Hugo, gives a solid performance in a role that requires him to carry the film. The film is also rife with Harry Potter alumni: Helen McCrory is Kingsley’s wife, and Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths are part of a parallel series of plots that depict the daily life of those who work in the station.

Hugo isn’t perfect. At times the film drags, and a scene involving a professor of cinema (Michael Stuhlbarg) piles on the exposition. It’s necessary for those who have never heard of Melies, who I’m sure are 99.9 percent of the audience, but it plays kind of deadly. There’s also a bizarre inconsistency of accents. The children have British accents, but others have sort of French accents, and Cohen’s seems Germanic.

But those concerns are largely ignorable, as the sense of magic and wonder will stick with me for a long time. The film will bear repeat viewings, as there are sorts of things to spot–I think I saw James Joyce and Salvador Dali in the station, and unless I miss my guess, Johnny Depp (who is one of the producers) has a cameo as the guitarist Django Reinhardt.

My grade for Hugo: A-.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

11 responses »

  1. I mean – the solution presents itself early on and they take a detour to Intro to Film History for 1/4 of the movie. I’m a lover of the cinema – so I enjoyed it, but I don’t think this will play well with kids.

  2. I’m a lover of the cinema – so I enjoyed it, but I don’t think this will play well with kids.

    FWIW, I saw this and The Muppets both last weekend, in full theaters with lots of families, during matinee showtimes. I definitely felt like the kids were less fidgety and more attentive during Hugo.

    Which actually makes sense to me, because Hugo is a story about children instead of just being a nostalgia exercise for 70s and 80s kids.

  3. I want to take that as a sign that there’s hope for kids today – but this Christmas sees the release of Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. With this entry the franchise will easily pass the $1 billion mark worldwide. So I’m not getting my hopes up.

  4. And I thought Buttefield was great. You have great apathy for him, without him being pitiful. That’s tough to do. Moretz was good, but rather actorly. Kingsley was quite good. Cohen worked pretty well, which I wasn’t expecting. Emily Mortimer got nothing to do, but dang – she’s adorable. I just want to cuddle with her.

  5. Saw this today – in 2D – and was impressed by it.

    Very slickly made, looks stunning throughout, but probably it’s greatest achievement is it avoids the common pitfalls and cliches of children’s films, especially sentimentality. This was illustrated in the relationship between Hugo and Isabelle, which very well done and convincing without ever getting corny or sappy(and well acted by both).

    The only real drawback I had with the film is that it didn’t have the real emotional impact on me by the end that it probably should’ve had. That’s probably in part due to how the narrative was structured and how the closing scenes were as much a tribute to George Melies (which was certainly very well done) as it was to finishing up the stories of the various characters.

    Also, like JS I found the vast array of accents on display rather distracting.

    Still, this is was highly entertaining overall and definitely one of the best 2011 releases I’ve seen to date. Rating: B+

  6. I should add that for all the good qualities it has, I can see why it’s struggling to really catch on with the public as it’s really a difficult sell (even in Australia despite glowing reviews it hasn’t done particularly well so far). Sections like when it turns into a virtual documentary on George Melies would be a tough sell in a standard film, even moreso in a children’s film.

    Because of it’s subject matter it’s going to really appeal to film critics and those with a passion for cinema, but I don’t think the situation of Melies would resonate massively beyond that.

    It’s a pity as it’s a fine film but that’s the way it is.

  7. WOW…was this bad.
    It was sumptuous and very easy to live within the world, just get lost in it, but it’s stultifyingly boring, there are numerous characters you don’t care about, the kid wasn’t that strong an actor and the anti-climax of the denouement (sp?) and then the continuation of his renaissance that wasn’t really a renaissance and then the further continuation of the story was just…make it about Melies or the kid maybe? I don’t know.
    After the *wondrous* virtuosity of the opening shot (that they could have masked the transitions on better…was wondering if 3D made it easier to see) it just kept sliding further and further downhill.
    3D is not something I ever need to seek out, but that being said, Scorsese used the 3D far more effectively than even Cameron did, and Cameron is no slouch.

  8. I enjoyed this immensely (for the reasons everyone mentions) and wish I could have seen it in 3D. I did not find it dragging or lagging at all and was impressed that Cohen was able to not be too loose with his performance. My guess is Scorsese had something to do with that.
    Interesting note – my 13-year old was enthralled with the film while my 12-year old was bored to tears. It’s like a generational difference between 7th & 8th grade!

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