- Rated PG
- Buy the BD
All photos © Paramount Pictures
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
n the surface, “Hugo” sounds more like the kind of family-friendly fare that you'd expect someone like Steven Spielberg to make rather than Martin Scorsese, but just as the movie gets better the further along it goes, it also becomes increasingly apparent why a self-professed film fanatic such as Scorsese would be interested in the story. Though it’s bogged down by a dreadfully slow and mostly uneventful first act, the movie eventually finds its groove as a rather enchanting valentine to cinema that any film lover will appreciate. Whether or not that includes children is up for debate, because while “Hugo” may not exactly be for people of all ages, there’s a childlike wonderment to what Scorsese has created that suggests otherwise.
Based on Brian Selznick’s award-winning novel, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” the movie takes place in the early 1930s and tells the tale of the eponymous young orphan (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the walls of a Paris train station tending the clocks after his father is killed in a fire and his alcoholic uncle (the person originally in charge of keeping the station’s clocks working) disappears. Hugo's only remaining connection to his father rests in a strange automaton that they had been repairing together, and although he believes that it might contain a special message for him, the machine won’t work without a rare, heart-shaped key. But when Hugo discovers that a young girl named Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) happens to be in possession of that very key, the pair unlocks a mystery involving Hugo’s father, the bitter old man (Ben Kingsley) that runs the station's toy shop, and pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès – all while evading the merciless station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) who intends to throw Hugo into the local orphanage.
The ongoing cat-and-mouse game between Hugo and the buffoonish station inspector becomes a bit repetitive over the course of the film, but it’s a fun little reprieve at times that allows Cohen to show off his knack for physical comedy. Unfortunately, it’s also a reason why the first act is so troublesome, and that has less to do with Scorsese’s execution of the material than Joe Logan’s bloated script. Though the automaton is a necessary part of the story because it’s what initially inspires Hugo and Isabelle to go off on their adventure, so much time is wasted delaying the inevitable that once the machine serves its purpose, it feels like the real movie can finally begin. And what a fascinating journey it turns out to be, as Scorsese dives head first into the history of cinema by exploring the work of Méliès with such enthusiasm (even going so far as to recreate many of his movies) that "Hugo" becomes a PSA for the preservation of film.
It’s curious that he would choose to make this plea while utilizing a technology like 3D, but seeing as how he also references the Lumière brothers’ famous film of an arriving train that had a similar effect on audiences and even influenced Méliès to get into filmmaking, the parallels make sense. While Scorsese has some fun playing around in the 3D sandbox, however, with the exception of a few great shots, it’s still superfluous. Scorsese gets more out of the medium than most directors (some of his close-ups, in particular, look incredible), but I’m still not sold on it as a necessary storytelling device.
The acting, meanwhile, is good but hardly spectacular. Newcomer Asa Butterfield does well enough in the title role, Helen McCrory and Michael Stuhlbarg turn in some fine supporting performances, and Ben Kingsley is back in top form in a role that probably has the best chance of being nominated. Of course, there’s also a lot of wasted talent on display, with actors like Jude Law, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer and Christopher Lee all relegated to mere cameos, but then, that just goes to show you what they're willing to do to be in a Scorsese film. “Hugo” is far from one of his best efforts, but for a movie that represents a few firsts for the director, he still makes it look totally effortless.
Two-Disc Blu-ray Review:
Paramount’s Blu-ray release of “Hugo” isn’t as outstanding as it probably could have been, but there are still a few really great extras on the disc. The 20-minute making-of featurette, “Shoot the Moon,” covers everything from casting, to the challenges and benefits of shooting in 3D, to even working with dogs, while the profile on Georges Méliès (“The Cinemagician”) offers some nice background information on the pioneer filmmaker. Also included is a short featurette on filming the train crash sequence using miniatures (“Big Effects, Small Scale”), a featurette on the history of automatons, a brief interview with Sacha Baron Cohen, and a DVD and Ultraviolet digital copy of the movie.