Review: Hugo (2011)

Director: Martin Scorsese


Georges Méliès (1861-1938) was a pioneer of early cinema, combining special effects and magnificent sets with fantastical narratives to make films that hypnotized audiences on original release, and that still boast a charm that has stood the test of time to today (for proof, click here). Martin Scorsese aims to recreate that charm in Hugo, a combination of heartfelt homage and children’s adventure. As the former, it works. As the latter, it’s intermittently engaging but mostly annoying, misplacing charm and replacing it with over-eagerness. Oh, and it’s in 3D, of which Marty is now a big fan. Has the decline of Western civilization begun?

Brian Selznick’s award-winning book ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’ is a hybrid of novel and picture book; the narrative is equally dependent on both. Selznick interwove details of the life of the older Méliès with the story of a boy named Hugo Cabret who lives in the walls of Gare de Montparnasse in Paris, where a penniless Méliès owns a toy stall. Hugo is played by Asa Butterfield who, along with his turn in The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, has confirmed himself as Elijah Wood’s heir apparent, with his saucer-like blue eyes and constant look of astonishment. His orphaned Hugo (Jude Law plays Pop Cabret, and dies about two minutes after first coming onscreen) maintains the clocks at Montparnasse and constantly evades the eyeline of the station inspector (an immensely irritating Sacha Baron Cohen) and his trusty rottweiler. One day, Méliès catches Hugo stealing from his stall, and confiscates a notebook of Hugo’s as punishment. The notebook contains details of an automaton (wind-up figure) that Hugo and his father were fixing when Pop Cabret died. Hugo tries to get his notebook back with the help of Méliès’ ward Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). For the first hour of Hugo, that’s pretty much all the plot there is. Scriptwriter John Logan (who co-wrote Gladiator and wrote the script for Scorsese’s The Aviator) indulges the more fanciful elements of Selznick’s novel, and often just gives up on the plot altogether. Thus, we are introduced into such characters as Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths) the station newsagent, Madame Emilie (Frances de la Tour) the café owner and Lisette (Emily Mortimer) the florist. All these characters serve little-to-no purpose except to distract from the plot and add some humour to the potentially drab storyline. Frick and Emilie playfully flirt, as do Lisette and the inspector, but who cares? They may be intended as references to Méliès own works, but they are merely annoying. Scorsese and Logan attempt to replace the charm that Méliès’ films conjured with bucketloads of whimsy, including Christopher Lee as the only character in all of Paris to have a French accent! Meanwhile, Isabelle is a gratingly precocious little madam, and the automaton that she and Hugo try to fix looks decidedly creepy. The biggest flaw, however, are the effects. They’re not especially bad but, considering the simplicity of Méliès’ effects and stories, it’s disheartening to find an old pro like Scorsese toying around with huge CG sets and set-pieces. With designs that look like Tim Burton on a off-day, it feels like the spirit of Méliès’ oeuvre is being smothered by computerized pixels, and the addition of 3D technology is the icing on a particularly bitter cake.

Once Hugo and Isabelle discover Méliès’ past, and wonder why he’s trying to escape it, the film kicks up a notch as the children, with the help of film academic Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), proceed to reveal the greatness of Méliès’ films, not least to Méliès himself. Flashbacks to Méliès’ studio and the filming of his greatest work, A Trip To The Moon, are the best part of Hugo. Here, the imagination and spirit of ‘Papa Georges’ is revealed in full as he, his actress wife (Helen McCrory) and his crew attempt to make movie magic. Kingsley makes for a nicely bitter Georges, but he and Butterfield are working against a pile of overly-sugary dialogue and OTT effects. Hugo’s heart is in the right place, but there’s far too much going on at too slow a pace for us to care. Scorsese could probably have made a compelling and worthy documentary about Méliès (he already made one about George Harrison this year, and it is highly recommended); as tributes go, Hugo is all (misplaced) energy and no restraint.


One thought on “Review: Hugo (2011)

  1. The movie itself runs a bit long at 127 minutes, but Hugo is worth every minute for the visual feast it provides, and features Scorsese in probably his most delightful and elegant mood ever, especially with all of the beautiful 3-D. Good review.

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