Director Martin Scorcese tries very hard to make a holiday family film that will appeal to all generations with Hugo. The film is based on the popular and wonderful young adult graphic novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, about a 12 year old orphan living in a train station and trying to unravel the mystery of a clockwork automaton left behind by his father. Hugo is a beautiful and apt adaption that soars on most levels. Yet, the film with it’s huge production values and heavy-handed symbolism struggles to capture the magic and message of the unassuming book.
Robert Richardson’s cinematography will certainly be in the running for an Oscar and the first 15 minutes of the film are stunning with two incredibly long and detailed continuous tracking shots flying through the exterior and interior of the Paris Train Station where 80% of the movie takes place. The camera work is textbook Scorcese and he brings the same precision to the romantically historical 1930′s set and costuming. All of the visual elements are perfect but for a movie about clockworks the timing was very slow and often awkward. The film tries to impart a love of film history in the viewer and that films are captured dreams. The awe and reverence Scorcese is looking for didn’t translate for me. The magic was missing.
Ben Kingsley was pitch perfect casting as Papa Georges and the other main players of Asa Butterfield as Hugo and Chloe Grace Moretz as Isabelle did some nice acting despite lacking a certain friendly chemistry. Christopher Lee (always a treat) makes a brief appearance as a book seller. Oddly Sacha Baron Cohen was cast as the Station Inspector, the scary villain of the book, Cohen plays him as a buffoon. Most of the jokes fall flat and I feel this was Scorcese trying to bring the film down to the lowest common denominator. In the first act he even takes a hit to the balls in a drawn out comedic chase scene which failed to illicit even a chuckle from a fully packed theater. Sacha Baron Cohen’s character wasn’t a complete misstep but it certainly took away from the class of the rest of the story.
Speaking of story, Scorcese’s main changes to the story came in the tone department. The book is quite somber and dark with Hugo the orphan’s many tragedies and failures. The film touches on all this but the overall tone is playful and tries to be mysterious. I think this film would be much better if I hadn’t read the book even though I didn’t have many expectations for the film. The revelations of the final act would be much more fantastic if I didn’t know what was coming and have a film degree. Other reviewers will probably say this is Scorcese’s love letter to silent film history but on that account I think he failed but not completely. There are great scenes from silent cinema included but his story telling had no connection to that history for me. This nostalgia didn’t produce mystical memories, only pretty pictures. I never felt for Hugo or worried about his dilemmas; it was all a bit too shiny.
However, it is a great family film and it’s fun to watch. Ultimately to me it’s Hollywood fluff; compared to something like Amelie, another film about solving a mystery about magical items, it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. Granted that’s not a family film but it captures the whimsy and idealized Paris that I think Scorcese was trying to find.
Still Hugo is a simple heart-warming film with a simple moral. It’s a pleasure to look at and I think for most viewers they will be wrapped up in the wonder. I saw the 3D version and many people are saying that is the way to go for this film, but I disagree. I think the awesome tracking shots and lovely clockwork sets would work just as well in good old fashioned 2D. But either way it will look good.