When Martin Scorsese announced that his next film would be an adaptation of the young adult fantasy novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret it seemed an odd choice to many given that he’s largely known for making gritty and blood-soaked crime films. The choice makes more sense when one considers some of films that Scorsese has been championing recently like Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, Jean Renoir’s The River, and most notably the Technicolor fantasy film The Thief of Baghdad. These were all Technicolor extravaganzas with fantastical elements that made use of what was at the time cutting edge technology and visual effects work. Scorsese has also never really been averse to genre filmmaking, having already made thrillers like Cape Fear and Shutter Island, biopics like Kundun and The Aviator and even an old style Hollywood musical in 1977’s New York, New York. So with that in mind Hugo (which was awkwardly renamed by the studio) does make sense within Scorsese’s filmography, though how successful it is remains to be seen.
The film is set in 1920s Paris and focuses on a twelve year old boy named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who has lived in the Parisian train station ever since his father (Jude Law) died and his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone) trained him to work the station’s many clocks. He’s been secretly doing this on his own ever since his uncle disappeared, but during his free time he salvages mechanical pieces in order to finish building the automatron (clockwork robot shaped like a human) that he and his father once worked to build. One day he tries to steal a piece for this automatron from the station’s toy store and the store’s proprietor (Ben Kingsley) catches him in the process. He calls over the station’s police liaison Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) but really begins to freak out once he confiscates Hugo’s notebook and sees his design for the automatron. He keeps the book, causing Hugo to venture outside of the train station to reclaim it and in the process he meets and befriends the toy store owner’s goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) and the two of them decide to go on an adventure in order to figure out what the toy store owner’s connection to the automatron is and why it distresses him so much.
I should address the big three dimensional elephant in the room but I’ll also say upfront that my experience with 3D is limited and I can’t really bring any kind of expert analysis to the topic. Prior to this the only 3D film’s I’d seen in 3D were Avatar and Tron: Legacy, and I saw both of those in the IMAX format rather than the Real-D format that my screening of Hugo employed. While those previous films largely took place in otherworldly (and CGI heavy) environments, but Hugo is set distinctly in this world, albeit in the past and through a somewhat fantastical lens. I can’t say that Scorsese has exactly re-invented the 3D wheel, I don’t see this as some sort of vindication of the format as a tool for master filmmakers, but his use of the format is mostly effective and tasteful and I don’t regret having splurged for the more expensive 3D ticket.
The film’s use of cutting edge 3D technology is somewhat ironic given that Hugo is largely a tribute to early silent films and the French pioneer Georges Méliès in particular. I’d heard about the film’s affinity for silent cinema ahead of time and expected it to largely manifest itself through subtle shot recreations and other minor nods that would only be noticed by devoted cineastes, but it turns out that early cinema is actually a major part of the film’s plot. Films are watched and addressed by name and Méliès himself actually emerges as a character within the film. This material, particularly a handful of flashbacks to the production of Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon and other ground-breaking shorts, are where the film shines. This material is all the more interesting because it is largely factually accurate and Scorsese is able to fit a strong argument for better film preservation and better respect for cinematic artistry into the proceedings. At the very least it’s the best reintroduction of Méliès work into pop culture since The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” video.
This material is enough to warm the heart of any film lover and is the reason that I will ultimately recommend the film; however, the rest of the film is not necessarily worthy of these highlights. In fact, during the film’s first third in which cinema was not front and center I was about ready to write the film off as an outright failure. At the center of the film’s problems is the character of Hugo Cabret himself who is frankly the weakest character in his own film. I was not moved by Hugo’s angst over his missing father, which rarely transcended its young adult literature origins, and the fact that the character is only really connected to the Méliès though a huge coincidence doesn’t help matters either. The character is also brought down by Asa Butterfield who, to be perfectly blunt, is not very good here. It’s not easy to call out a thirteen year old actor, but the fact of the matter is that he gives a very wooden performance compared to, say, Joel Courtney work earlier this year in J.J. Abrams’ Super 8.
Another young actor, Chloë Grace Moretz, comes off a lot better here and shows that she can be quite strong when playing normal child roles that don’t involve murdering people. In fact, most of the rest of the cast is quite strong here. Ben Kingsley, who is coming off as string of half-assed work in bad Hollywood movies, seems renewed here and while I wouldn’t call his performance a tour de force he certainly delivers respectable work. There’s also solid work here from actors in smaller roles like Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Christopher Lee. The one adult performance I was less than pleased with was Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance as the station inspector though that might have had more to do with the character than with Cohen’s performance. Whenever that station inspector came into the film everything came to a screeching halt, the humor got more juvenile, and the 3D seemed to get more gimmicky. Scorsese does manage to humanize the character later on and make him into less of a living cartoon, but that doesn’t change the fact that for much of the film he feels like a concession to family audiences looking for lighthearted humor related to testicular injuries.
Speaking of which, I don’t think that kids are going to get much out of this. This movie belongs to that strange subset of contemporary films like Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are that are ostensibly for families but really for hipster types who still yearn for nostalgic whimsy. I feel like Scorsese really just wanted a project that would allow him to experiment with certain technical advancements and then found this young adult book that would give him an economically viable project to do this and also let him to bring the story of Georges Méliès to the public as an added bonus. If that’s what the guy needs to do to make a film, I guess it’s fair play but it also leaves us with a film that’s trying to please two audiences at once and not necessarily succeeding at entertaining either. Younger audiences likely will not respond to the film’s melancholic tone and will likely be bored by the Méliès material while older film buffs will be forced to sit through a very middling work of whimsical fantasy in order to get to “the good stuff.” As for adult audiences who aren’t film buffs and who don’t know or care about the works of Georges Méliès… well I don’t think they’ll respond to anything here.
I do have grave reservations about Hugo I do ultimately think the positives outweigh the negatives, at least for the very narrow audience that the film seems to be intended for. When the film is at its best it is the best tribute to the power of cinema since Quentin Tarentino’s Inglourious Basterds. However, I’m not going to let my enthusiasm for these elements blind me to the fact that they’ve been wedged into the middle of a family film which is average at best. This is a very uneven and ultimately flawed film worth seeing only if you’re a Scorsese devotee with a strong interest in film history. I am both of those things and as such I was able to enjoy the film as a whole, I don’t know how many more people fall into that sub-group.
*** out of Four