Hugo is an intriguing premise for a film, with Martin Scorsese’s love for the showmen and pioneers of early cinema aligning perfectly with one of the integral elements of Brian Selznick’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Add to this the fact that this is a Martin Scorsese film ostensibly aimed at children and his first film shot in 3D and we have a project which we’ve had our eye on for some time and one which arrives with high expectations.
It arrives in cinemas on the 2nd of December and there are thrilling elements to this often charming adventure story, with a fine cast and a wonderfully evocative visual design, but there’s more beneath this impressive surface to bring to light.
There are spoilers here, but scroll down to the final paragraph for my final word which won’t spoil the plot details for you.
Asa Butterfield is Hugo Cabret, an orphan whose life lies within the walls of a Parisian train station as he hurries himself through the building winding the clocks and trying desperately to scavenge enough spare mechanical parts to complete the building of an automaton he was renovating with his father before his tragic death. Hugo’s belief is that when completed the mechanical man will go through the motions dictated by his clockwork mechanics and convey a message from beyond the grave. Struggling to survive without his father and determined to find some escape from this existence Hugo watches the station come to life every day and spies a toy shop, whose workshop may yield the essential parts his needs to complete his project and conjure the spirit of his father one last time.
Ben Kingsley is a triumphant presence as the cantankerous Toy shop owner Papa Georges whose identity is revealed to be the legendary, and now forgotten, cinematic master Georges Méliès and Kingsley teases out every nuance of the anger and sadness of the loss of his former life, his reason to be. Scorsese clearly revels in the chance to show his two young stars pouring over the newly discovered works of Méliès and there’s a real, and unexpected, treat for fans of the director towards the end of the film. For this is his story, and Hugo’s discovery which forms this initial part of the film fades quickly into the background and never engages us again, though there is some incredibly overt metaphors brought to life in his disturbed dreams and some jarring and unsubtle moments of dialogue which betray any trust for the audience to make connections and feel the narrative and emotional echoes on a visceral level.
Chloe Moretz continues to impress and she is given the best lines early on in the film, with a literate and precocious quality to her which means that she, thanks to her unwavering ability to breathe a fresh and charming air into her characters, is the one who draws us in to Hugo’s mystery as well as revealing the true identity of her Godfather, Papa Georges. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Station Inspector is a wildly uneven character only made bearable by the actor’s talent for grounding the more cartoonish and slapstick moments with a trace of pathos and he works very well as Hugo’s nemesis, the man who snatches vagrant children and sends them off to the orphanage. Note must be made here of Kevin Eldon’s far too brief cameo which was pitch perfect and far more effective than some of the other, more prominent members of the supporting cast who circle the film without ever being given the chance to engage the audience.
Howard Shore’s rich and jaunty score is given prominence in the first ten minutes of the film which introduces us to Hugo, the station and the clockwork labyrinth which constitutes his world in the walls of the Parisian station and yet there’s very little held back; it, like the emotional message of the entire film, is writ large and loud. What does work is the production design which renders Paris and the central station beautifully though a little anonymously but there are a few breathtaking sweeps across the snow covered cityscapes – though I could easily do without the crossfade of the mechanics of a watch overlaid onto the streets of Paris (which is a great image and works perfectly as just that – there was no need for the metaphor to be explained). Much of the film was made at Pinewood and something of the legendary studio’s history plays in well with the themes of the film and it has a sumptuous quality without ever looking ostentatious or like ‘Tourist Paris’.
The film has been hailed many, many times as Scorsese’s love letter to cinema, and there’s no doubt his genuine affection for the evolution of the artform and the feelings the most potent directors can conjure but Hugo lacks the vital component which inspires us. Despite a glorious opening scene the narrative runs wayward in the vital first half an hour and the story of Hugo’s discovery of the automaton’s purpose is drained of the emotional impact it needs to engage us in the ongoing adventure of the story and when the story finds its feet (or slots nicely into the rails to use an appropriate image) it’s a bumpy road rather than a smooth voyage of discovery.
The 3D worked very well in most parts, and was among the most impressive I’ve seen for a long time. Seeing the city of Paris miles below from the vantage we are given through the clock tower windows induced the requisite vertigo and awe in equal measure and there were moments, particularly during the scenes in Hugo’s ‘lair’ behind the walls which made great use of 3D to convey the space very well indeed. Rather surprisingly the 3D was among the more subtle of the elements in play here.
Thanks to a number of sledgehammered metaphors and emotions so aggressively conveyed it was as if a director’s commentary was used instead of a script and there was very little discovery to be had here. I remember discovering Méliès as a kid watching documentaries on Star Wars and the evolution of special effects and then later on from Terry Gilliam’s own long forgotten TV series The Last Machine and I was enthralled by the invention and the wit of the early masters. I would have liked to have seen that illumination and discovery present in Hugo and I believe that was the original spark of the project from both Brian Selznick and then Scorsese himself.
It’s a handsome film with Chloe Moretz’s charming performance standing out along with Ben Kingsley’s savage and vulnerable man recapturing the spirit of his life but ultimately the heart of the film is more mechanical than magical.