Although Hugo was yet another film that was extensively miss-marketed, I would like to state from the outset that I knew exactly what the story was before-hand, and was really looking forward to it. I saw it theatrically in 3D and have since watched it a couple of times of BD … however, my opinions about the film haven’t altered. For the following review which, of course, is purely my own extremely considered opinion and most definitely not an attempt to go against the critical grain just for the sake of it, I will circle the wagons and prepare for a gallant last stand.
“Movies are where dreams are made.”
And you may well find yourself day-dreaming whilst watching this particular movie. Or just snoring.
Well, the film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and actually won a slew of technical statuettes (which it, inarguably, deserved), and it has been the darling of critics and “serious” movie scholars since its theatrical release … but I have to admit that, once again, I am dumbfounded by the accolades heaped at director Martin Scorsese’s feet. Like Shutter Island (which was so obvious an old chestnut that I groaned with the knowledge of how it was going to end even during the first few moments) and The Departed before it, which was a ridiculously over-praised exercise in smug superstar-showmanship from Jack Nicholson, and a tediously poor remake of a truly classic crime movie, Hugo is a massively self-conscious and rudely overblown excess of style over substance that seems designed, even in its very fabric, to court the rapture of the cinematic cognoscenti. I don’t have a problem with fantastical art films – which this most defiantly is – and I totally love surrealism and fabulosity within the cinematic milieu, as well as knowing homage to the glories of yesteryear. But I suppose there is such a finite difference between nailing such an unusual and magical cineaste ambience and falling completely over the side into laboriously protracted plot sign-postage and cinematic symbolism that you have to admire a filmmaker for even attempting such an avant-garde experiment.
On the surface, Hugo, which has been adapted by John Logan from Brian Selznick’s popular children’s book, The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, is a terrific idea. But that’s all it is. An idea.
Young orphan boy, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), looks after the clocks in a teeming Paris railway terminus in 1931. Hidden away in the deep recesses of the vast clockwork mechanism where he resides, avoiding the child-catching attentions of the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) who wants to fling him into the local orphanage, is an automaton, the very thing that his beloved father (Jude Law) was working on before his tragic death in a museum fire. Hugo painstakingly pilfers the parts needed to make the clockwork entity work from whatever he can scavenge from the station, but most notably from the toy shop run by Sir Ben Kingsley’s scowl-faced old curmudgeon, who may have a secret or two up his sleeve. When he and the shopkeeper’s daughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) finally manage to make it come to life, the automaton draws a picture that sends the two children off on a wild odyssey that leads to them uncovering the magical secrets of the origins of Cinema and, eventually, helps them to return hope and pride to one of its most glorious and imaginative pioneers … the great Georges Melies, who has become spiritually lost to the world.
A master filmmaker like Scorsese, whose own obsession with the history of Cinema and the preservation of past works of filmic art is second to none, is perfectly entitled and absolutely right to make a film like Hugo into a love-letter and a visual championing of the craft and its illustrious genesis. In an age of endless rehashes and remakes, franchises and extended unrated cuts, an era in which filmmakers have the luxury to see their productions, however low-budget, extreme or just plain naff preserved digitally and available for immediate download, streaming or whatever, it is worth being reminded of a time when such easy indulgences were impossible, and movie-makers were dedicated to the true magic of celluloid make-believe with blood, sweat and tears … and a vast quantity of good, old-fashioned optimism. These were the true pioneers of technology and imagination, and such past luminaries as George Melies, whose life and works Hugo seeks to celebrate, are thoroughly deserving of the lavish treatment that Martin Scorsese can bestow upon them.
I definitely concur one hundred percent with that goal. But, even with this crusade in mind, I have to admit that I’m not fond of how the film Hugo actually turned out.
In my opnion, it lacks cohesion, focus and full-blooded character. I found it very difficult to care about anyone in this film, and the whole thing seemed so horribly artificial and overblown that I expected circus clowns to appear and squirt water in my face from a fake flower and to throw a bucket of confetti over me. And in the 3D version this could really have worked.
In short, I was bored by an overlong adventure that seeks wonder and charm yet somehow manages to be both too sophisticated and downright obvious to grant me with either. I knew exactly where the tale was headed, and it did nothing to surprise, excite or move me along the way.
I know that many genuine film-lovers, as opposed to those who are paid in some way or another to lavish praise over certain Tinseltown-offerings (and we can guess who a few of those might be) have found much of worth in Hugo, and I wish that I could feel the same way. I adore the notion of a renowned cinematic genius (barring those last couple of misfires – as far as I am concerned) paying his respects to the history and artistry of a medium that has become his life-blood, and I have no problem whatsoever with it being paid for by virtue of a lavish, fully technologically endowed and immensely sentimental fashion as this, but I would have preferred some sort of empathetic storyline to go alongside it. I truly struggled to get into this despite really looking forward to the film and positively celebrating its clever premise. The main problem I found was that I just didn’t care at all about young Hugo. The poor lad loses his loving father (played by Jude Law, who should know a thing or two about creating artificial beings having played one in the equally manipulative A.I.) and gets taken in by a drunken, uncouth uncle (another guest cameo, this time from Ray Winstone), who barely gives him the time of day whilst, ironically enough, teaching him the very mechanics of keeping the “time of day” in the complex clock systems of the railway station. His obsessive need to give life to the automaton and his quest to get his father’s precious notebook back from the shopkeeper were elements that I enjoyed and felt a part of. But once the automaton draws its picture and both he and Isabelle introduce one another to the joys of books and films, and gradually come to understand the importance of someone close to them who is hiding from the past … I found myself losing interest. Combine this with some very quaint and very European subplots of strangers attempting to bond, in spite of the rather flimsy obstacles that a chucklesome Fate has placed in their way, and the film just begins to dawdle when it should be gathering steam.
Scorsese is revelling in nostalgia and in the artistry of manufacturing dreams that others can see, and using the most modern of technology to embrace and celebrate the methods of old. We see Harold Lloyd hanging off the clock-face – a scene that you just know he is going to have Hugo ape at some point – and he gets to reconstruct some of Melies’ most famous imagery. But, to me, this seemed much too personal a journey that Scorsese had undertaken … and I struggled to have any fun with it myself. I kept looking for adventure even though I realised that this was the adventure – the beauty of Cinema – and, for me, this realisation just wasn’t going to be enough.
We keep falling over ourselves in praising such child actors as Chloe Moretz, but there is an undeniably too mature quality about their performances that removes innocence and charm from them. Moretz is definitely a great actress. Her work in Let Me In and Kick-Ass was justifiably applauded, as was her turn in 500 Days of Summer, but as Isabelle, she is a woman-child whose eyes and reactions are so meticulously prepared and adult that she could give Kirsten Dunst’s vampire-girl, Claudia, in Interview with the Vampire, a run for her money. She is much better than Asa Butterfield, though. I thought that Butterfield was terrible in the role. Big wide blue eyes seem to be the thing for diminutive sensitives to have – Elijah Wood’s Frodo Baggins being their figurehead – and Butterfield certainly has a couple of those. But his voice is a dark monotone that yields no emotion. His performance is all watchfulness and movement, and no soul. Hugo opens the door to Isabelle’s imagination via the movies, lending moving pictures to her vocabulary of dreams, but he conveys so little of that precious inner core, himself. The loss of his father has absolutely no weight because Butterfield lacks the ability to convey any sense of grief. Or fear. Or regret. Or hope. Or happiness. In fact, he is more like an automaton than the bloody automaton - something that even comes true during one dream sequence! His desperation to play a part in the final revelation has zero sense of impetus because he is so emotionless and, again, too mature in voice, expression and style to convince as little orphan boy ... with a dream. It is not like watching kids in the story – with these two it is like watching adults playing kids. And playing them badly.
And the other participants in Scorsese’s Valentine?
Step forward, Sir Ben Kingsley. Ghandi. Schindler’s List. And nasty mob-lord, Don Logan, in Sexy Beast. The ever-busy actor is capable of delivering truly strong performances that come in a variety of genres and effect many different psychological and ethnic flavours. He can also make films for Uwe Boll – and let’s face it, nobody comes out of one of those with their head held high – so you know that the guy is also very capable of handing over ham for cash. In fact, there has been a spell when just seeing Kingsley’s name in a cast list made you gulp, cross yourself and scurry away in the opposite direction despite him having such an illustrious past. The gong-laden luvvie doesn’t seem to turn his nose up at much – videogame voiceovers and even playing himself in lauded cameos – and his quality control procedure is often in need of an upgrade. Against the odds and my own unshakable conviction that I was watching a well-heeled clunker, in which everyone involved played a part in sinking, I didn’t mind his vaguely (though obviously not) sinister asylum administrator in Shutter Island. Well, he’s very good here, making his aggrieved and embittered toy-maker quite painfully sympathetic at the same time as being something of a bogeyman for our Hugo. For all the string-pulled, dance-on-wire emotions of the kids, he genuinely comes up with the goods, giving the impression of a man both haunted and hurt by the past. When revelations come, I feel he slips out of the considered characterisation much too easily, and his transition from sulky ogre to born-again bon-vivente is rushed and hackneyed, although a fair degree of this is down to how Scorsese negates much of this more interesting subterfuge and strife in favour of a “party one-and-all” finale of hideous cheer that becomes a 30’s Parisian take on Scrooge’s famed Yuletide turnaround. Nevertheless, there is a rare gravity to his performance.
Sasha Baron Cohen is a tremendous character-actor. His outlandish creations for Bo’Selecta, Borat, Bruno and the forthcoming The Dictator make up one enormously bold and in-yer-face roster of cultural incendiaries, but there is also his volte-face performance as the rival barber, Pirelli, in Tim Burton’s excellent Sweeny Todd. Here, it may be great to see him and he does all that is required of him, but the script does not allow him breathe life into the Station Inspector and, quite frankly, it is difficult to care how his little romantic subplot with Emily Mortimer’s flower-girl turns out. He is an aside, an important one during the endgame, but an aside, just the same. His decision to bestow his moustachioed antagonist with an accent that is swiped from Peter Cook, but seems to have come via the mouth of Boycie of Only Fools And Horses fame is a curious one. It actually seems to falter on occasion, which is unusual for Cohen, becoming something of an off-note in the aural mechanics of the movie. Whenever he speaks, the film stalls and becomes something of a hesitant embarrassment. Clearly, his struggling romantic attempts are a Chaplin-esque reference, but as with the dog-thwarted Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths relationship, it actually means nothing to me ... or the rest of the plot. I couldn’t care less about the Station Inspector’s hidden heart, and his burgeoning sense of humanity and compassion. The thing is that he is barely a villain in the first place. He’s just a buffoon. But even as a buffoon, his antics are exceedingly poor. The “bum” leg with its squeaky brace is panto-broad humour of the most lethargic. The gag when he gets it caught in the door of the train as it leaves the platform and gets dragged along beside it was absolutely terrible. That would have worked in a knockabout farce, a Some Mother’s do ‘ave Them style stunt, but it sticks out like the kid in fancy-dress at a non-fancy-dress party. Very ill-fitting and all rather self-conscious. There’s no reason why an otherwise serious film can’t have elements of slapstick in it, but I’m afraid this sort of thing only aided in derailing the tone.
Actually having Christopher Lee appearing in the film was something that I was dreading long before seeing it. As an ardent admirer of the cult star and genre titan, I have to admit that his continued film-making has been something of a mixed blessing. It is wonderful to see him as the wizard, Saruman, in The Lord of the Rings, but he was an embarrassment as Count Dooku in Star Wars, and his appearances in The Resident, Burke and Hare and Season of the Witch were just dreadful, obviously shoehorned assignments - movie-makers simply wheeling him on to lend their productions some sort of gravitas with the fans. That was uber-cool in Sleepy Hollow, even if he was clearly struggling to recall his lines, but now it is getting to be just condescending. Here, however, as the crusty librarian, I actually warmed to him more than anybody else in the film, and his custodian of antiquarian literature has barely any screentime at all. Also strangely effective was Michael Stuhlbarg as the filmic historian who has made the life and times of George Melies his single driving obsession, to the point where he has even blended fact with some fantasy of his own … simply in order to make sense of a mystery the solution of which lies under everybody’s noses.
Another major plus, of course, is the score from Howard Shore, which is an absolute treat, mixing Parisian whimsy via the sweet jauntiness of the accordion with folding moods of fable and mystery. It decks the film quite heavily, another very European trait, rolling with antics of Hugo and the smothering the legacy of a half-forgotten life. And the visuals are soaked in amber and crafted with as much precision as the cogs and wheels in the big station timepiece and in the clockwork heart and soul of the automaton, itself. The very first shot, a majestic one-take (seemingly) swoop through the bustling environ of the station and right into the eye of the watchful Hugo, who is peering from behind the clock-face, may have taken a year to concoct, but it immediately sets the decorative and elaborate panache that Scorsese is going to drench his film with. With fluid, balletic cinematography from the amazingly reliable Robert Richardson (Platoon, The Horse Whisperer, and The Aviator and Shutter Island for Scorsese) that just bleeds immersive confidence, you can’t help but be drawn into this curious nostalgic world, and whether you believe the trip was worth it or not, you can’t argue that your eyes have not been utterly seduced every step of the way. And Scorsese-regular, Dante Ferretti, once again excels with production design that is unerringly beguiling.
Hugo is a profoundly inventive film, and one that is visually beautiful and full of adoringly rendered references and love-letters to the invention of Cinema and all the possibilities that it can bestow, but it may take a level of patience that you hadn’t expected you’d require, just in order to wade through it until reaching a conclusion that only barely provides a satisfying pay-off with all the suitable emotions. Then again, for me, the finale was just plain twee. The fact that the Academy showered this film with so many accolades is not altogether surprising. Scorsese has been deserving of peer-based glory for a long time, although ladling statuettes on The Departed was just as patronising as Paul Newman getting Best Actor for The Color Of Money, and the theme of magical back-slapping towards one of the medium’s greatest pioneers is one that surely ticked many boxes and caused a great number of snooty noses to stop sniffing in genre-arrogance for a moment. But, to me, the film feels horribly engineered to specifically engage those eccentric and nodding-dog self-referential minds and staid outlooks with only glitzily superficial attention afforded the hearts of the film-fans themselves. As a children’s fantasy, it misleads and goes beyond into adult sentimentality. My kids demanded that I turned it off around the half-way mark and my son had even read Selznick’s book and loved it, and asking around friends with families who had either taken their young ones to see the film at the flicks or had shown them the disc, I found that my experience was not at all unique. Even as an adult fantasy, the film is oddly bereft of genuine wonder and spectacle. You know, cinema has the capacity to make children of us all – and I would love that line to be an argument that I could proffer in the film’s defence – but Hugo has such a cold lack of character and a dearth of proper storytelling narrative that it just fell flat on too many dramatic levels for me.
It can’t help but feel wrong to denounce such a critically lauded film, but be that as it may - this is how I feel. I wanted to love Hugo and have tried on a couple of occasions to find its heart and soul – and failed miserably on both. But then I shouldn’t have to try to love something, should I? No, I’m cannot climb aboard the Scorsese bandwagon and recommend Hugo with any true conviction. I found it extremely pretty but vacant, emotionally stunted, and missing several important ingredients, narrative-speaking, such as a proper hook and some actual momentum – like a story that didn’t seem like some painfully thin ode of heritage reverence and past-master respect, and lead characters that I could actually empathise with. And despite its visual opulence, it was a profoundly dull, heartless experience. I know that people could cite Dario Argento’s Suspiria, which is one of my all-time favourite movies, as carrying those same hallmarks, but Suspiria is a nightmare hauled from the darkest pits of the imagination and its brazen lack of logic and narrative, coupled with a true sense of palpable dread and authentic magic, are the very things that make it one of the most enthralling of horror film experiences. Hugo attempts to succeed on visual mood and an atmosphere of sheer wonder. Its decorative values are certainly noteworthy, though ultimately empty and vacuous if nothing of any significance comes of them. It also attempts to tell a story that is actually very interesting, but renders that story slight, whimsical and awfully contrived. Combining the true story of Georges Melies with fantastical overtones should have been both much more significant and more subtle than how Scorsese handles it. But, then, I am in the minority with this opinion.
My experience with Hugo is very much akin to the one I had with Tarsem Singh’s audacious, but resoundingly hollow romp through the Greek Myths in Immortals. Both presented me with stories that I had a definite passion for, and both were extraordinarily beautiful to look at, visually stimulating and fetched from the most lavish corners of their creators’ imaginations. But both failed to connect with me on anything other than a purely superficial and, ultimately, very disposable level. With Immortals this was a lot more understandable as Singh works predominantly with crafting imagery and has the story, or a semblance of one, stringing things together only very loosely. When the craftsman behind it all is someone cherishes character and story just as much, if not more than the visual eloquence on display, this is all the more jarring.
I’ve come across as being quite anti-Hugo and I must stress that such feelings give me no pleasure whatsoever. Difficulties with both The Departed and Shutter Island aside, I still greatly admire Martin Scorsese despite a third consecutive film leaving me utterly cold and disappointed. I won’t deny that I can see what all the fuss is about, but I just can’t feel any of it. And if I can’t do that, then I’m afraid that I just can’t join in with any of the adulation that Hugo basks in.