Review: ‘Hugo’

‘Your kids are going to love it, and they’re going to come out of the theater loving silent movies as a bonus. Hugo is a winner for that reason alone.’

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Martin Scorsese didn’t make Hugo with me in mind. That’s true for a lot of directors who make a family film, since I don’t have a family, I don’t want a family, and I think all children should come equipped with muzzles. But I love a good family film, and I certainly love Martin Scorsese, whom many consider to be the world’s greatest living director (certainly the competition is slim). Hugo is an overt labor of love, filled with lavish sets and powerful sentimentality, but it left me a little cold, because it’s mystery, and I already knew “Whodunnit.”

There aren’t enough “ragamuffin” movies anymore, what with the romanticization of childhood poverty going out of fashion. But Hugo qualifies. The protagonist, played by the spooky-eyed Asa Butterfield, is an orphaned mechanical prodigy who keeps the clocks running at a grand French train station in the 1930’s. He spends his time doing his job, narrowly evading a dastardly station inspector who never got the memo that Hugo is actually supposed to be there, and trying to fix a mysterious automaton that his father (Jude Law) rescued from a museum but was unable to repair before his untimely death. But his dream of having his very own robot – so he won’t be lonely, awww – is stymied when a crotchety old toymaker played by Ben Kingsley gets in his way. It’s okay though, because Kingsley has a spunky, precocious goddaughter played by Kick-Ass star Chloë Grace Moretz, and heartwarming adventures are bound to ensue.

Hugo reminds me a lot of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, telling as it does a story about children living in a strange public space who spend the bulk of their time unraveling a mysterious adult’s identity. The adult in question is Kingsley, who plays George Méliès. There are two kinds of people in Hugo’s audience: people who know who George Méliès is, and people who don’t. The people who don’t recognize the name as belonging to one of the most famous and influential artists of the early 20th Century are probably in for a treat as Hugo uncovers a mystery involving moon landings and shoe heels. The rest of us are in the unfortunate position of having lapped the film before it began.

The pacing of Hugo suffers a bit for me, and I imagine it will do the same for many of you as you wait for the protagonists to acquire what is now considered fairly common knowledge. But again, Hugo wasn’t made for me, and there’s a good chance that it wasn’t made for you either. Hugo was made for little kids, and the fact that it was made in 3D implies a certain degree of noble chicanery on the part of Martin Scorsese. The avid film enthusiast and generally quite brilliant director is tricking children into seeing a big Hollywood spectacle of the Harry Potter variety, and then once they’re plunked down in their seats, money out of pocket, he forces them into a Film History 101 course. It’s a conspiracy, of course, but a benevolent one. If just a small percentage of Hugo’s target audience asks for a DVD of George Méliès, Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton films for Christmas, then Scorsese probably deserves an honorary Oscar his trouble.

But beyond good intentions, Hugo isn’t a terribly exciting production, despite a couple of blockbusting dream sequences that seem especially designed to spruce up the trailer and distract from the sedated plotline. The mystery Hugo has to solve may be magical, but has no intrinsic threat attached. If he doesn’t find out who George Méliès really is, he won’t be killed or imprisoned or lose anything else of value, and that keeps the film from ever achieving much in the realm of excitement. Scorsese plays at filling the world of Hugo with compelling side characters played by notable actors like Christopher Lee, Emily Mortimer and Frances de la Tour, but the film isn’t about a community, it’s about a little boy in an intriguing situation that doesn’t develop in a particularly intriguing way. That’s how it feels to me, at least, and I imagine many of you will feel the same way. But your kids are going to love it, and they’re going to come out of the theater loving silent movies as a bonus. Hugo is a winner for that reason alone.