I must begin this review by dispelling one of the major misconceptions about this film: those of you who have been led to believe that Hugo is a “steampunk fantasy adventure” (as one friend described it) will be sorely disappointed. Hugo takes place almost exclusively inside a train station in Paris, France. Some amount of adventure does occur, but nothing on the scale of a true family fantasy film (e.g. Harry Potter).
This is old news to those of you who have read the graphic novel which Hugo is based on. A simple Wikipedia search on Invention of Hugo Cabret finds that the genre of that piece is “historical fiction,” and not, as you might expect, “science fiction/fantasy.”
What has been called Martin Scorsese’s “love letter” to the films of yore falls short of what features such as Super 8 have achieved in the past. However, there is a clear definition of homage according to Dictionary.com:
homage – noun, respect or reverence paid or rendered.
JJ Abrams masterfully did this in Super 8, where he used imagery, plot devices, and characters that evoked older films such as Stand By Me and E.T. What Scorsese did in Hugo was instead take numerous pieces of footage from early filmmakers’ seminal films and insert them into his own. This would not have been an issue, except for the film’s aforementioned strange pacing; Scorsese’s time showing the audience his passion for the industry’s first visionaries is crammed into the twilight of the 2 hour 6 minute runtime when it should have been spaced more elegantly in the lead-up to the emotional conclusion.
This brings me to what is so frustrating about Hugo. The possibility of a deep, engaging look at the dawn of film would have been an excellent concept for a film, and doing it through the medium of a children’s movie might help teach the younger generations about where the industry got started. I realized this as I watched the last 20 minutes of this film, which I loved. It was apparent when the final plot twists are revealed, late though they were, that Scorsese was truly inspired by Georges Méliès. The emotion in these final scenes was palpable. Had Hugo truly embraced the Méliès character and story, perhaps through better pacing, I might have better appreciated what Scorsese was purportedly trying to do.
Chloë Moretz gives a typically strong performance as Hugo’s friend Isabelle, even if the story doesn’t really go anywhere. I am still lukewarm on Hugo himself (Asa Butterfield), as I found his acting to be merely serviceable at best. This may have something to do with the fact that he seems to suffer from a particularly annoying case of twitchy-face (as many other child actors do), but I digress. The more minor roles of Sacha Baron-Cohen as an ex-army policeman and Richard Griffiths as a patron, among others, are cursory and feel shallow in spite of the talent behind them. I have to wonder, since I have not read Invention of Hugo Cabret, if these station-dwellers were given more face time in the source material. Nevertheless, I always evaluate a film on its own merits and I found the lack of depth to be something of a missed opportunity.
So is Hugo worth seeing? I think that, going in with your eyes open, you might find Hugo to be worth your time. Knowing what to expect might have prevented the massive disappointment I felt at the distinct lack of adventure in the film, despite the characters’ claims to the contrary. In the end, I enjoyed what Scorsese was attempting to do, and Hugo is hardly a bad film – I just think people should know what they’re getting themselves into ahead of time.
Verdict: Movie Meh
A Note on 3D – As some of you know, Hugo was notable for actually being shot in 3D, a process which fans of the format say vastly improves the overall 3D effect and avoids the pitfalls endemic to post-conversion. You may or may not know that I’m 100% with Roger Ebert on 3D – I think it’s travesty that’s doing nothing for cinema and merely exists as an outright ploy to keep us paying premium prices for theater tickets.
Having said that, I can appreciate when a filmmaker at least attempts to use the new format correctly to enhance their film. Martin Scorsese is not one of those people. While he attempted to do it justice by filming in 3D, he never once truly uses the added picture depth to his advantage. In movies like James Cameron’s Avatar, 3D is used carefully to add depth or tangibility to the scene. For all its faults, this was one thing Avatar did very well. Hugo merely adds multiple layers in the environment to no great effect and the few scenes where it seems 3D might be well-used, Scorsese skips over entirely.