Hugo (2011)

Film #18: Hugo (2011)

Hugo is unusual fare for director Martin Scorsese, whose films usually revolve around violent crimes or troubled psyches (or, in the case of Cape Fear, both). Instead, Scorsese’s latest work is an about-face, a family mystery film following its 12 year-old title character in 1931 Paris. Hugo lives within the walls of a large railway station, a drab existence resulting from an accident that killed his father (Jude Law) and the negligence of his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone). Before his father, a clockmaker, died, he infected Hugo with the wonders of machinery, especially in the case of an old broken automaton. Hoping to find some sort of message from his late father, Hugo sets to work fixing the machine with the help of Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), the goddaughter of an angry shopkeeper (Ben Kingsley) who resents Hugo for his thievery.

The opening shots of Hugo are breath-taking flights over the city of Paris and through the train station, pausing only when we arrive at Hugo peering at Parisians from behind a clock face. The camera then quickly tracks in a side-scrolling fashion as Hugo runs around the inner structures of the train station. These visual effects are among the best I’ve ever seen, with crowds and cityscapes so realistic that I had serious trouble differentiating the  CG from live-action. The digital settings allow Scorsese to take unnatural control over his camera, floating it through space to follow the characters in whatever way he demands. This total control results in amazing shots at every scale, from the grand sight of Paris’ skyline to the macro shots of various gears and mechanics. There’s no shortage of beauty in this film.

Welcome to Paris

These magical shots set the tone for the film, which certainly falls on the spectacular side of things. Any time a child is the focus of a story, it often takes up a wondrous tone, and as Hugo and Isabelle embark on their search, that childish excitement of discovery shines through – especially in the case of Miz Moretz, whose previous acting experiences in films like (500) Days of Summer and Kick-Ass are really starting to pay off. Hers is a creative mind, with an intense bibliophilia cultivated by a helpful book store owner (Christopher Lee). This literary embrace makes her excited to go on “adventures”, and if Hugo was a more complete film, those adventures would become as magical as the film’s style initially suggests.

Unfortunately, Hugo holds back. Though there are moments that slip into surreal magic, such as when Hugo fixes a mechanical mouse for the shop owner, the movie seems strangely stuck in reality. It never takes the full plunge into the fantastical, as opposed to tonally similar movies like Amélie. Its reluctance is unwarranted; with subject matter of illusionists and dream-making, the film should embrace the unreal, but instead, it fails to become as magical as the characters it follows. Perhaps it’s because of Hugo himself. As opposed to Isabelle, whose imaginative background is based in books, Hugo was trained in the logic of machines – he’s convinced that he’ll find meaning by fixing the automaton, believing that everything has a purpose.

Child stars are a free pass into fantasy, but Scorsese didn’t get the memo

That search for purpose is the underlying theme of Hugo, and it seems to be the only thing unifying the two halves of the film. The first hour is a story about Hugo, as might be expected – how he survives, how he ended up living in a train station, his daily clashes with the injured station security guard (Sacha Baron Cohen, in a subplot searching for his own purpose and providing plenty of humor), and his quest to finish the job his father started. That quest leads him to discover that Isabelle’s cantankerous godfather is none other than Georges Méliès, the French filmmaker whose work inspired Hugo’s dad. This discovery transitions into the second half of the film, which unexpectedly becomes a love story to Méliès and his contributions to the field.

Although united thematically, this subject change still feels abrupt. Both Hugo’s situation and the real-life story behind Méliès’ career are interesting and engaging, but when Hugo ended I almost felt like I had watched two films. Of the two, I had a stronger proclivity toward the second; I’ve learned a lot about Méliès’ work in the past, but luckily his life tale had even more to offer. Scorsese is, of course, a legendary filmmaker, and it’s inspiring to see one master of the craft create such a loving homage to another.

Early filmmaking abounds in (the second half of) Hugo

So, like fellow Oscar nominee The Artist, Hugo ends up being a film that pays tribute to the forerunners of cinema. Unlike The Artist, however, Hugo doesn’t heap praise upon an entire industry – it singles a man out, a man whose movies were among the first to tell stories and the first to use special effects. Méliès made films at a time when the technology was still new enough that people didn’t know what to do with it. He was one of many individuals trying to find a purpose for cinema, a drive reflected thematically in Hugo. But while Méliès found his purpose – bringing dreams to life through the magic of film – Hugo ultimately does not. Its disjointed halves and a strange self-restraint prevent Hugo from becoming a wholly complete masterpiece.

Hugo is an enjoyable film, full of wonder, amazing cinematography, and an all-star cast of talented players. Still, the sum of these parts falls short of the magical wonder that the movie very nearly evokes.

Final rating: 7.5/10

–James A. Janisse

Stray Observations:

  • The whole Wes Anderson-ish thing where the last shot of a film checks in with all the characters one last time seems to be getting more popular – but I’ve yet to have a problem with that.
  • Maybe it was because he was surrounded by seasoned actors, but Asa Butterfield wasn’t really doing it for me. I hope that opinion changes fast, because he’s about to be Ender in 2013’s Ender’s Game.
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