Movie Review: HUGO

It’s ironic that a movie about the wonderment of movies lacks that very quality overall, but that’s the case with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, based on Brian Selznick’s Caldecott Award-winning novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The adaptation is certainly stunning visually, especially in 3D, but comes across at times as mechanical as the clocks it features prominently.

The story centers around the orphaned Hugo (Asa Butterfield), who secretly lives at a train station in 1930s Paris, taking over his alcoholic uncle’s job of winding the clocks when the uncle (Ray Winstone) dies. He also assumes restoration duties on a broken “automaton”—a kind of robot with exposed gears—that he and his late dad (Jude Law) had been fixing up; he believes it holds a message from his father. Hugo has to do all this away from the eyes of the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), whose mission in life is keeping the train station clear of thieving urchins and throwing them into orphanages.

Hugo’s lot vastly improves once he befriends Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), a bookish girl who helps smooth out relations between Hugo and her godfather, the grumpy toy-shop owner (Ben Kingsley) whose whimsical things and magic tricks fascinate Hugo. The boy in turn introduces Isabelle to his love of cinema, inherited from his father, and the two find that their purpose in life might be intertwined.

The cinematography by Robert Richardson and production design by Dante Ferretti are undeniably magnificent. I’m not a fan of everything being turned into 3D, but when it’s done right, as it is here, it’s a visual treat. An opening sweeping shot that takes viewers from a snowy Parisian landscape through the bustling train station up into the clock tower is breathtaking, as are the recreated sets and scenes from real, early twentieth-century films (don’t want to spoil whose old movies they are). There’s a glass studio in particular and shots viewed through an aquarium that do evoke wonder.

Wish I could say the same for the emotional aspects of Hugo. It’s about the love of cinema and books, two of my favorite things in the world, so it’s disappointing that it fails to resonate deeply with me. Despite the many clocks keeping time on screen, the movie’s pacing is off, dragging in the beginning and often indulging in beats between dialogue that felt unnecessary. Scorsese (look for his cameo in the movie) obviously loves his subject matter but is almost too reverential, too intent in crafting a perfect film in all areas but the heart.

Butterfield, with his big Elijah Wood-y blue eyes, is competent if not a little stiff, and Moretz, speaking in a British accent (the cast is mostly British, though the characters are French) seems affected, her smiles a bit too forced. Oddly enough, the earnest-girl persona doesn’t fit her nearly as well as the dark, dangerous characters she plays in Kick-Ass and Let Me In. It feels like she’s reining in all the edginess that makes her interesting to watch.

Kingsley saves the day, however, as the toy owner with the mysterious past. The only moving moments for me came near the end, when he delivers lines that landed right smack in my chest because they come from such a deep place for his character. Kingsley speaks them simply, without theatrics, providing real magic, not just an illusion.

Nerd verdict: Hugo is visually stunning, but not well-calibrated emotionally

Photos: Paramount Pictures

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7 Comments

  • Reply
    EIREGO
    November 22, 2011 at 10:58 am

    I have been watching the trailer over and over trying to figure what it’s all about. It really does look beautiful and the kind of film I that I would have solidly embraced with my family during the holidays, but I am so weary of being sucked into seeing something I think will be wonderful and then watching it fall flat in front of me. With such a pedigree of talent behind it, I thought this would be amazing. Still, the more I look at the trailer, the more I realize it is beautiful without really telling me what it’s about. Can you at least tell me if the shot in the trailer in which the robot/automaton appears to float in the air is about it flying? Or coming alive? Or what the heck is that all about?

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      November 22, 2011 at 1:57 pm

      No, the automaton doesn’t fly. I don’t want to say much more than that. I can see why they put that shot in the trailer—it’s beautiful and dream-like—but it’s not representative of what the automaton does.

      • Reply
        EIREGO
        November 22, 2011 at 4:30 pm

        Well that is odd. From the trailer, I thought the thing came to life and floated in the air. Veddy, veddy strange…

  • Reply
    Clare2e
    November 22, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    I was interested when I saw the trailer. I was a little sad they had decided to go with what now seems to have become the official Harry Potter it’s-magical-for-kids font in the titles. That worried me, and what you’ve said confirms some of my dread. A visual feast that won’t transport me. I’m fatigued with the let-downs like EIREGO. Story and characters please! I probably will see it eventually, because of the kind of sucker I am, but I won’t rush.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      November 22, 2011 at 8:50 pm

      I seem to be in the minority. Got my EW today and they gave it an A-. The Hollywood Reporter raved about it, too. So you might love it and think, “What the Dickens (heh) was PCN thinking?”

  • Reply
    Shell Sherree
    November 23, 2011 at 12:36 am

    I would trust your reviews over any others, PCN! I’m not surprised that Ben Kingsley would provide the magic. He’s one of the special ones!

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      November 23, 2011 at 10:49 pm

      You are too kind, Shell. From here on out, I shall wield my influence over you ruthlessly. Heh heh.

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