Hugo (2011) Review (PG)
There’s nothing I love more than seeing films that have eerily similar images and themes to the comic that I’m currently working on right down to featuring one of my silver screen heroes Harold Lloyd. I’m not bitter or anything, though.So is that the earliest digression that I’ve ever presented in a review? It has to be. It was the first sentence. So, where was I? Yes, the beginning.
The story is of a young boy, Hugo (Asa Butterfield), who is living in the walls of a busy Paris train station. He winds the clocks of the station, which is the job of his uncle who had gone on a trip but did not return. The boy continues performing the duties of the job. He figures if the clocks keep running, no one will notice the man’s absence and he can continue to live there.
He spends his time pilfering food and more interestingly, gears, tools and parts from a toy store owner who operates a station shoppe. Hugo avoids (daily) the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen… adding his middle name Baron to separate himself from all of the other Sacha Cohens out there), a righteously indignant stickler to the rules WWI veteran who specializes in capturing wayward children and shuttling them off to the nearest orphange.
The Inspector is aided by probably my favorite character in the film; Maximillian the Doberman. The canine is equally as bumbling as the inspector, but probably twice as smart. The inspector seems obsessed with apprehending the young ‘troublemaker’, but he is also enamored with a woman, Lisette (the lovely and talented Emily Mortimer), that sells flowers in the station… Wait, I don’t want to get sidetracked with that…
Anyway… Hugo is caught by the toy store owner (Ben Kingsley) one day and is forced to reveal the fruits of his labor; the aforementioned gears and tools, plus a notebook with drawings of a steampunk style robot called the Automaton (of which Hugo has the real deal in his possession). The drawings are what truly sends the shop owner into a fury, demanding to know the name of the artist. Hugo remains silent and thus are the beginnings of several mild mysteries… Who was the artist? Who is the toy shop owner? What is the secret of the Automaton?
Aided in his quest by an ‘inside man’ (a girl in this case), Hugo slowly begins to ‘unlock’ the puzzle pieces. Chloe Grace Moretz (who now adds the middle name Grace to separate herself from all of the other Chloe Moretzes out there) plays Isabelle, a girl being raised by the toy store owner and his wife. She is enamored with the idea of being part of an ‘adventure’ and becomes fast friends with Hugo. Along the way, Scorsese puts in numerous silent film references, background art, and detailing.
There were recreations of the films of Georges Méliès throughout, as well as just showing some of the original footage. Sometimes the actors (Kingsley and Helen McCrory specifically) were inserted into the original shots via CGI with mixed results.
I particularly didn’t like one shot that was VERY poorly rendered by the art department, replacing the visage of the actual Jeanne Méliès with McCrory’s face). Several plot/story elements were taken from the films of Méliès. The Automaton, for instance, was taken from one of his lost films (made in 1897!), “Guguisse et l’Automate” (The Clown and the Automaton).
My favorite moment of the film had to have been the Harold Lloyd references. I made mention to a friend that the trailer’s image of Hugo hanging from a clock hand (an image that I intended to use in my comic book…) was obviously referencing my favorite of the big silent film comedians. Sure, Charlie Chapman was a huge star and Buster Keaton was a physical comedy genius (and I’m a huge fan of his), but Lloyd was my favorite. While Chaplain usually poked fun at the situation and Keaton was always the stoic yet steadfast hero/underdog, Lloyd wasn’t afraid to portray protagonists that were the victims of their own character flaws. He was the bumbling idiot who generally caused his own predicaments.
The image of Lloyd from “Safety Last” where he dangled precariously from a giant clock on the side of a highrise used to be on my living room wall (it only came down when I moved). I also loved the almost imperceptible detail (even at a blown up size) that he wore a glove in order to hide that fact that he had blown off part of his hand when a real bomb was mistaken for a prop. That image just says a lot of things to me, symbollically and literally. Whew! Digressing, again. My point is that I enjoyed the scene where Hugo and Isabelle sneak into the theater to take in the Harold Lloyd matinee. For a fan of Lloyd, that was fun to see.
Hugo has very little in common with the rest of Martin Scorsese’s body of film work. First, it’s a kid’s film, and he follows all the way through with that. No cursing. At all. I mean, it’s PG… Not PG-13. Not ‘PG with a questionable call by the ratings board’. PG. I was fully expecting to see Joe Pesci or Ray Liotta drop in tolaunch a few F-bombs, but no… No lude behavior by shockmeister Sacha Baron Cohen, either… The lack of shocks were shocking. And I don’t have any problem with any of that stuff. I just have a problem with that stuff in kid’s movies. And that’s why it’s so surprising to me that this is a Scorsese film. That by itself would markedly differentiate this from his other films. But that’s just the beginning of this creative ninety degree turn by the director.
Visually, this is a masterpiece. It’s Scorsese’s best looking film by a considerable margin. The setting is not Paris of an era gone by so much as an idealized fairy tale Parisian world in which these characters inhabit. Scorsese has always stuck (mostly) to trying to create some kind of gritty realism. Hugo is the polar opposite. It’s not just a CGI ‘eye candy’ film, though. Hugo’s set design is pure artistry, even more so than a lot of recent fantasy films like the Harry Potter films in their best moments. The ambience of the film reminded me of the little seen City of Ember, only on the other side of the coin. Bright, upbeat with a light step.
The trouble is the story and characters are walking contradictions to that. Where there is a bustling crowd, the central characters tend to stand around. The poster at the top claims an ‘extraordinary adventure’. The visuals are certainly extraordinary. The actual story is… what’s the word? Languid… Yeah, that’s it. Languid. It unfolds at a snail’s crawl. A leisurely pace. There’s a good sequence early on of Hugo moving through the walls of the train station and a brief chase by the Station Inspector (Sacha B. Cohen) but that’s what you get in the trailer. The trailer portrays this as a fast paced adventure full of ‘magical discoveries’. It is anything but that, yet, the very worst part, for me, is that the central character does nothing but cry the entire film… Nay, I say weep. He weeps. He’s weepie. If there is but one thing that I would have changed in this film: LESS WEEPING. It’s like every scene. Even the Emo-vanguard that was Spider-Man 3 did not feature a main male protagonist that WEEPED (not cried)… WEEPED… this much. As soon as I finished off the last kernel of popcorn (which was before the pre-movie trailers ended), I began using the bag for my vomiting. Weep. Barf! Weepie weepie. Gag! Barf! Weep. Bleaaghch!!!
Sorry. Where was I?
In truth, the film is very close in its narrative style to Scorsese’s other films. It rambles. That’s fine in his films like “Good Fellas” or “The Departed” that are tales of moral ambiguity. Character studies detailing tragic lives and downward spirals. In a kids’ film, you have to kind of keep the attention of… ya’ know… kids. Scorsese LOVES film. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have made this, a movie that is essentially about what he loves so much: movies. He films things that other directors may not have even thought about filming. For instance, the “Are you talkin’ to me?” scene from Taxi Driver that actually says volumes about that character. Just the character threatening phantom antagonists in the mirror” and supposedly that was DeNiro improvising. So he got the iconic moment that sums up both the film and the character… by accident. Scorsese just films stuff. On the other hand, in this case, he lets the film get bogged down in scenes that I was having trouble seeing why they were a part of the movie. He also seemed interested in telling too many stories in this that really were not that interesting. The main two intertwining stories are A) Hugo’s feelings about what happens to his father… And B) about a man regaining the feeling that his life had some purpose. But Scorsese also wants to tie in at least two more love stories (three if you count the dogs), a man who feels like he’s no longer viable, a divergence or two with a bookstore owner (but it IS the incomparable Christopher Lee), a man who is trying to preserve the films of his childhood… And on and on and on. And it’s mostly just talking. And talking. And explaining. Even the scenes portrayed as something ‘exciting’ (the films of Georges Méliès), are just more scenes of people standing around, only in costume.
Clearly, the story Scorsese wants to tell is the one of Georges Méliès, one of the earliest filmmakers. Scorsese is not only passionate about filmmaking, and not surprisingly that extends to preserving old films.He wants to share his film knowledge with everyone else. he wants it to matter to them like it does to him.
If you’ve been to a movie in the last few years you might have caught an ad for The Film Foundation (a charity dedicated to the task of ‘saving’ old deteriorating films). There is an aspect of that (film preservation/holding on to the past) in the story. Many film critics have said that Hugo is an almost autobiographical tale about Martin Scorsese himself. I think that’s a stretch, but it IS about things that the director has an interest in.
That might be the thing, though, that works most against it. Film critics will love this. People interested in film or who aspire to work in the film industry will like this. Those that are not so interested in the historical side (involving Méliès and his films) will surely be bored by this. There just isn’t enough dramatic tension.
I’m not saying that I didn’t like it. I did. Artistically, it’s brilliant. The story engaged me, but that’s because I love movies. I don’t know if a 7 year old will find this nearly as captivating as I did. I don’t know if anyone from 7 to 90 will, either. I just know that I enjoyed it, but it was, at times, a long, hard watch. Still, it’s in contention for my ‘Best film of 2011’…