Hugo is the kind of ambitious and earnest miscalculation that could only be made by someone with great love and passion. For his latest film, Martin Scorsese adapts author Brian Selznick’s children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, but at the same time takes the material so personally that the film’s good intentions are often ungainly and out of alignment with the actual story of the film. The material is definitely within Scorsese’s field of vision, but the famed director loses sight of audience expectations and creates a film wholly for the most academic fans of film studies.
Young thief, mechanical wizard, and orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives with the walls of a Parisian train station, keeping the clocks running on time unseen to everyone. His drunken uncle has abandoned him, and he’s trying to fix a broken automaton given to him by his deceased father with hopes that the writing robot holds his father’s final message. The key to the repair of the writing machine both literally and figuratively rests with a toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley, turning in easily his best performance since Sexy Beast) whom Hugo has been stealing from, and his young daughter Isabelle (Chloe Moretz).
While this set up would be perfect for the family adventure the source material would have one believe it is, Scorsese uses it as a jumping off point to exploit the big twist in the book dealing with the birth of cinema and the preservation needed to keep the films of cinematic pioneers alive. The film is plotted in a way that to really go into greater detail would be to rob those unfamiliar with the story of one of the better reveals of the film, but one can still talk about how it doesn’t entirely work without getting overly specific.
Visually, Scorsese puts in some of his most accomplished work to date. A fifteen minute opening that zooms in and out of the train station and through the catacombs where Hugo spends his days has very sparing amounts of dialogue and is one of the best scenes in any film this year. It sets up the story of the young man more than adequately and the movie’s story almost peaks before the title card even comes up.
At a certain point, the film just stops being about Hugo, and what would have been an audaciously made family exercise from the master director becomes a self-aggrandizing, but still fascinating look at the mechanics of filmmaking. Much like his titular hero, Scorsese wants the audience to pay close attention to the “clockwork,” or the inner workings of cinema and film preservation. It’s not exactly heady material, but it’s certainly material that can easily be romanticized.
Making a film about filmmaking with a new 3D technology sounds like a nice marriage of the old and new schools, but Scorsese comes across as more of a show-off than a showman. The film looks and sounds incredible, but entire sequences play out like Scorsese simply wanted to remount iconic sequences from some of his favourite filmmakers with a modern twist with little regard for his story or what the audience would think of it. It all feels oddly selfish insomuch that it doesn’t take from the audience at all, but it only gives them exactly what the director wants to give them (But such is the point of all film, and so on and so forth). As for the 3D, it’s not as great as one would think and hope since aside from some great action shots (the opening, a train laying waste to the entire station), Scorsese is the type of filmmaker who seems to think that depth is gained simply by putting something in the foreground and something in the background for viewers to focus on. It’s stunning at best and looks like a shadowbox at worst.
Scorsese wears his heart on his sleeve throughout the film, one that is free of any degree of cynicism or snark, but he throws subtlety out the window of the clock tower. Once the film turns to referencing famous works by Georges Méliès, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton, the film becomes almost unbearably preachy to a point where one doesn’t know what to make of the film itself. It’s thunderously beating the drum for film preservation purposes (especially with melodramatic and cornball readings of lines like “Time has not been kind to old movies” and someone on a film set saying “Do you know where your dreams are from? Look all around you!”). As a film fan, this sentiment is greatly appreciated, but not in a film seemingly made for children. There might not be a single child who can make it through the middle hour of the film without squirming and wondering why their old uncle is lecturing them in the middle of something that’s supposed to be escapist fun.
The film still manages to be a lot of fun, but probably not in the way that Scorsese intended. It’s almost too childish to really appeal to a broader adult audience, too esoteric to appeal to the common man, and takes on too much of a professorial air to appeal to children. Who was the movie made for? It almost stands as the definition of a film that only an academic could love and fully appreciate. As an admittedly minor film academic, I respectfully refrain from discussing specifics until I have seen the film a second time (there’s a lot to take in and experience) and until more people have viewed the film. The film will definitely create some interesting dialogue.
The role of academia on screen is personified by Kingsley acting as Scorsese’s on-screen surrogate. He plays a man frustrated and jaded by his lot in life despite once being filled with wonder and imagination. The wide-eyed love of seeing a film for the first time is personified through a less successful Moretz, who delivers a great performance playing a character it’s hard to believe would ever exist in the pages of a children’s book. Butterfield is a great young talent delivering a truly affecting performance in a film that feels all too content to push the titular character aside so Scorsese can simply show off his seemingly infinite understanding of film history.
The film’s greatest moment of cinematic joy comes in the form of Michael Stuhlbarg’s film scholar Rene Tabard. Rene is a character that lights up the screen with the real sense of wonder that the film seems based around. When he learns that a long believed master filmmaker still lives after once thought as dead, Rene comes to life and matches the joy of film that Scorsese has been browbeating into the audience for about thirty minutes by that point. The film probably shouldn’t even be about Hugo as it’s abundantly clear that Scorsese identifies much more clearly with the adults than the kids. Kids, however, will naturally gravitate towards Sacha Baron Cohen as the gimped legged villainous station inspector who gets to live out classic slapstick gags in some of the film’s stronger moments.
I do appreciate Hugo for being made with such love, care, and attention to detail. It’s amazing that this film (reportedly budgeted at a staggering $170 million, all of which is on screen) even got a greenlit in the first place. In short, I hope everyone does go to see Hugo, as it truly is unlike anything audiences have been treated to before and because the underlying message of preserving classic cinema is something that I can get behind. I’m really just baffled by those who would ever recommend this film to anyone other than hardcore cinephiles who don’t mind being told what they already know over and over again for a shade over two hours. There’s nothing particularly bad or false about it, but there isn’t anything in this story aside from Scorsese’s own personal imprinting that couldn’t be garnered from simply watching other films. One suspects the real ending of the film might have been Scorsese coming out after the conclusion and sitting in front of a bunch of leather bound tomes in mahogany bookcases admonishing viewers to consult their local libraries. You’ll get your money’s worth since you’re essentially paying for a course in film studies, and there are far worse ways to get an education.