Reviews in the Nick of Time: Hugo

by wjw on December 8, 2011

Martin Scorsese directing a fantasy?  A fantasy with a juvenile protagonist?  A fantasy with a juvenile protagonist based on a Caldecott Award-winning children’s book in which absolutely no one is stabbed in the jugular with a kitchen knife to spray gallons of blood over the scenery?  Say it ain’t so, Marty!

Yeah, it’s so.

Despite its general air of wholesomeness, the movie had me right at the opening scene, in which a clockwork mechanism slowly dissolves, or maybe mutates, into a panoramic night scene of Paris, then pans slowly and magically across the city to the Gare Montparnasse, the enormous railway station in which lives Hugo, the protagonist, played ably enough by Asa Butterfield.  The camera then enters the station and tracks across its majestic length to a closeup of Hugo, who peers at us from the face of one of the station’s giant clocks.

All of this is in glorious 3-D.  It’s the best and most masterly use of 3-D since Avatar, and shares with that film the distinction of not having given me a headache.  All other 3-D films find me headache-prone, because the constant use of smash cuts favored by the former music video directors dominating the industry constantly causes the depth of field to jump around, causing my eyes to work overtime at keeping things in focus.  Scorsese is absolutely terrific in maintaining a steady depth of field from one shot to the next— except of course when he wants to play around with it, just to show you how masterful he  is.  Which is fine.

But back to the movie.  Hugo lives Phantom-like in forgotten rooms and passages in the giant station,  is the orphaned son of a clockmaker, and is obsessed with repairing the automaton discovered in a museum storeroom by his late father.  Hugo’s automaton, repaired and supplied with pen and ink, will write a message.  Hugo hopes that it will be a message from his father.

In the meantime, Hugo steals food, winds and maintains the station’s clocks, and steals mechanical toys from the grumpy vendor (Ben Kingsley) in order to scavenge their springs and gears for his project, all the while avoiding the Clouseau-like Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who specializes in shipping homeless children off to a (presumably Dickensian) orphanage.  (My suspicion is that Cohen improvised a lot of his Goon Show-like dialog, since it doesn’t really have the same tone as that of the rest of the film.)

Hugo is befriended by Isabelle, the adopted daughter of the grumpy toy vendor.  Since Isabelle is played by Chloe Grace Moretz, who I last saw as Hit Girl in Kick-Ass, I entertained brief hopes of some gunplay and decapitations, but was disappointed.

Isabelle turns out to possess the key that will turn on Hugo’s automaton, and the eerie machine promptly delivers not a message from the Beyond, as Hugo hoped, but a drawing of the Man in the Moon, signed by one Georges Méliès.

Since I’m discussing a film that’s still in the theaters, as opposed to my usual practice of reviewing them months or years later, I think I’d better put up a SPOILER ALERT.

The kids now go in pursued of Méliès, and it’s here that the movie just . . . starts . . . to . . . slow . . . down.

We know, of course, that Georges Méliès was the French film pioneer, director of A Trip to the Moon and Baron Munchausen’s Dream and The Impossible Voyage and other fantastic films.  And, if we as cinema-goers have been paying attention, we pretty much also know that Méliès is also the grumpy toy vendor who is Isabelle’s adoptive father.  (Méliès did, in fact, keep a toy store in the Gare Montparnasse late in life.) So we’re pretty much ahead of Hugo and Isabelle at this point.

How do Hugo and Isabelle discover Méliès secret?  Well, they read a book about movie history in a library.  Isn’t that exciting, boys and girls?

Despite any impression that may be given by the trailers, Hugo is not, in fact, a fantasy film.  It’s filmed like a fantasy film, and it has the tropes of fantasy films, and the hero even goes on a quest, but in fact it’s a film about fantasy films.  It’s a film about Méliès and his movies and the other fantastic films that lead right up to Hugo.  The movie shows us Méliès’ films, and flashbacks show us Méliès making his films, and we see the impact of Méliès’ films on the characters.  And the film deeply approves of fantasy and Méliès and Méliès’ fantasy films.

Hugo himself, caught in this quasi-fantastic film about fantasy films, has a rather odd attitude toward it all.  His view on life is informed by automata, and he thinks of himself as a gear or other mechanical part, and he wants to know what kind of part he is and what his purpose might be.

Hugo aspires to be a cog, a problematical ambition for any character aspiring to be a movie hero.  And he eventually divines that his purpose in life is to redeem, somehow, Georges Méliès, and remind Méliès what a pivotal and important character he, Méliès, was, in the history of French cinema.

Fantasy heroes generally accomplish such critical tasks as the Greening of the Land, or the Scouring of the Shire, or founding the Knights of the Round Table.  Hugo’s self-appointed task is to make a grumpy old guy feel better about himself, and to redeem, not French cinema (which is doing just fine), but the history of French cinema.

You have to care deeply about the history of French cinema in order to give much of a toss about Hugo’s quest, and Scorsese clearly cares deeply about the history of French cinema.  But I think this is where Scorsese is going to simultaneously win over film critics while losing his juvenile audience. I think children are going to snore through this movie in droves.

As the final half of the film went on (and on, and on), I kept asking myself What exactly is at stake here? And I couldn’t quite work it out.  Hugo’s doing fine on his own really.  The Inspector is too much of a bungler to serve as a threat.  It’s nice that Hugo (and Scorsese) care about Georges Méliès’ self-esteem, but I’m not sure Méliès’ self-esteem is worth mounting a $170,000,000 production over.  Is this a very expensive public service announcement for film preservation?  Or something else?  I couldn’t tell.

Still, the level of craft in this film is astounding.  It’s an amazingly beautiful production.  The 3-D works (mostly).  Since the film is about cinema, it’s full of references to other films— it’s not composed entirely of bits of other movies, like a Tarantino film, but with hommages carefully worked into its structure.  I particularly liked the references to Rear Window, with Hugo peering down from the station’s clock faces to catch little bits of everyday drama and soap opera enacted by the station’s inhabitants, most of whom are played by very fine British character actors, among them Christopher Lee and Ray Winstone.

Maybe the movie needs that knife to the jugular after all.  It certainly needs some kind of edge.

Still, I would advise seeing it.  Because it’s gorgeous, and it’s the work of a master, and it gives you hope for 3-D being something other than a gimmick.

Just don’t expect to give your adrenal glands much of a workout.

Nancy Kress December 9, 2011 at 2:23 pm

I couldn’t agree more, Walter. In fact, I DID agree about HUGO on my own blog, although with less eloquence and detail.
–Nancy Kress

wjw December 10, 2011 at 3:53 am

Well, I sorta got carried away . . .

One of the things that Hugo does is tell you that if you care about movies, especially old movies, you’re somehow special. Which is why every review I’ve seen was a rave— the movie flatters critics amazingly.

mastadge January 12, 2012 at 10:32 pm

Agreed. The film was moving along well enough, and then they went to the library and it turned into one of Scorsese’s AFI please-help-restore-the-films commercials.

Still, yes, it’s technically exquisite.

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