Taxi Driver and Goodfellas had one big thing in common — lovably feisty and gritty young characters. Even though neither of those films were kids movies, the audience was drawn to those little characters because of their story and their drive. Hugo, while being a “kid’s” movie, unfortunately lacks the ability to connect its characters to the audience. Was it just the script that lacked personality, or should Scorsese just stick to child characters who yield adult themes?
Hugo is a young boy who lives behind the very clocks that he manages in a grand 1930’s train station. Virtually an orphan, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives off petty theft and on his wits, but his true passion is fixing up an old automaton that he and his father (Jude Law) worked to repair before his untimely death. Hugo is chased daily by the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) who loves to capture loitering orphans and send them to the orphanage. The Inspector and a grouchy toy maker (Ben Kingsley as Georges Méliès) are Hugo’s main antagonists, trying to foil his way of life at seemingly every turn. While at first it appears that Hugo (being the namesake of the film no less) is the main character, it turns out that the real focus of the movie is on Georges Méliès and a little mystery that surrounds him. When I say “a little”, I really mean just a little. We’ll discuss that here shortly though.
When it comes to filmmaking, Scorsese is the master. He’s proven it time and time again, and Hugo falls right into line with the rest. The cinematography was phenomenal, with beautifully orchestrated scenes that had a depth and polish that could only be crafted using new 3D technologies to their fullest. The 3D aspects were blessedly gimmick free, and were used instead as an interesting storytelling tool. There’s a scene where the Inspector has caught Hugo, and as he leans in to say menacing things, his face gets closer and closer, making you feel intimidated and demeaned right along with the poor boy. The score was quite masterful which was no surprise coming from Howard Shore. It was as much a character of this film as any other.
The cast was powerful, each lending wonderful moments of pure belief that you were really in the characters’ shoes. Kingsley was a delight to behold, Butterfield was truly convincing, and Chloe Moretz was completely in tune with Isabelle. Cohen did what Cohen does best, having impeccable timing and delivering a few laughs. Jude Law was great as Hugo’s father, for those few brief moments he was on screen.
So you must be wondering why Hugo isn’t the best movie of the season, considering all the aforementioned elements? It definitely had the potential to be great, but when you get down to the bare essentials — strip every pretty 3D CGI graphic away — what we’ve come to do is watch an interesting story being played out before us. Unfortunately, Hugo is missing the basic ‘meat & potatoes’ that make an epic story so epic. While Hugo himself is a great idea of a character, he is so nice that it’s boring. There were several missed opportunities where Scorsese could have made you fall in love with his character. With the scenes of Hugo and his father limited to just a few minutes, there isn’t much time for the audience to feel that connection nor draw you to the boy after his father dies. He moves in with his nasty, drunken uncle, but he too is only in two scenes and he barely registers as a source of anguish for Hugo. The automaton that we have all been curious about since the trailer ends up not being as cool as it seems, and the ‘big mystery’ surrounding Georges Méliès is less than mysterious. You enter the film expecting one thing, and end up getting something totally different and far less entertaining than you imagined. Scorcese saves his warmest embrace for a digression on the history of early cinema, which has nearly nothing to do with Hugo at all. Anyone other than film nerds will consequentially grow tired of this gushing homage. Hugo is also desperately drawn out, having scenes that focus on minute characters that have no bearing on the story whatsoever. Why focus on the coffee shop owner and the fellow who comes courting, Scorsese? They don’t interact with our main characters at all; they have no purpose except to provide obstacles for chase-scene antics. These precious scenes could have been used to expand Hugo’s character, or been eliminated all together.
Hugo is beautiful, it’s sweet, and it’s something to do during the holidays with your family. But ultimately, if you’re taking a kid under the age of 10, be prepared for them to be bored out of their minds and bouncing out of their seats. You would also think that being a Scorsese film, the slow 2 hour 7 minute burn would have a nice big pay-off of an ending. Wrong again. The entire movie (though epic in every other way) is underwhelming at most. There’s very little action, even less real humor, and hardly any drama to be classified as such. It’s also a little confusing, touting about as a children’s movie but requiring the audience to have the patience of an adult. I have never read the book, but I pray to God it was more interesting than the movie. I don’t mind long, slow-burn movies, but I require them to be more than pretty images, a flashy budget and shallow, feel-good moments shown to me under false advertising.
I give Hugo 3 “Men in the Moon” out of 5.
by Rachael Edwards