Academy Award winning director Martin Scorsese is best-known for making gritty adult crime dramas, thrillers and biopics. “Hugo” is both his first 3D film and his first family film. While “Hugo” continues to be promoted as a family adventure and two of it’s main characters are a pre-teen boy and girl, Scorsese’s new effort is really a drama that’s not intended for children.
“Hugo” is based on the award-winning 2007 book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, which is part novel, part picture book.
Young Asa Butterfield stars as the title character. He’s an orphan living in a clock tower inside a train station in Paris during the 1930’s. His father (played by Jude Law) was a clockmaker before he died. Hugo helped him run the family business. And in their spare time they worked on fixing-up an old automata (a large, mechanical, wind-up figure). But after Hugo’s father dies, he goes to the train station to live with his uncle (who operates all of the clocks), but eventually abandons him. Hugo is now responsible for operating the clocks but wanders the station, stealing food to stay alive and hoping not to be caught by the inspector (played in an over-the-top performance by Sacha Baren Cohen).
Hugo also steals mechanical parts from an old toy shop owner named George (Sir Ben Kingsley). He finally gets caught and George takes away Hugo’s notebook, which is full of details on fixing the automata. Desperate to get the notebook back, Hugo asks George’s goddaughter Isabelle (young actress Chloe Grace Moretz) if she will help him. She’s also an orphan, and eager for an adventure. So together they try to figure out why George is holding on to the book and why he’s so sad and angry all the time.
“Hugo” is two movies in one – and that’s it biggest problem. The first half (which will appeal more to kids) is the story of these two kids trying to solve a mystery in this strange, exciting, scary setting. Then, once all the pieces come together, the movie focuses on the old man trying to forget the past and then dealing with it . Each of these plotlines may have made pretty good movies on their own, but they simply don’t fit well together. It seems that Scorsese wanted to have it both ways by trying to make a fun kids film with a serious, adult themes. But it just doesn’t work.
There’s loads of symbolism in “Hugo”, most of it heavy-handed, and it drips with sentimentality. There are several side characters who are thrown in to add flavor to the train station atmosphere, who all have issues they’re trying to work-out. In other words – they’re all broken in some way. In fact everyone one is this film is broken – and that’s the theme. And it’s up to little Hugo to fix them.
“Hugo” also provides an interesting look back to the beginning of the movie industry, but again, this storyline doesn’t flow well with the rest of the film.
However, Scorsese has made a beautiful-looking film. The exterior shots of Paris are amazing and he captures the atmosphere inside the crowded train station perfectly. Few directors have the imagination with a camera – angles, composition, than Scorsese, and it’s all on display here. Scenes with Hugo in the clock tower, with all the gears and pulleys, are spectacular, The costumes and set design are authentic, and this is one of the best uses of 3D in a live-action movie I’ve ever seen. There aren’t too many gimmicks, which helps the look of the film shine in the extra dimension.
Kingsley bounces back nicely from “Prince of Persia” and gives a solid performance. The two kids are O.K. but kind of bland, though that’s obviously what Scorsese wanted. There are some attempts at light humor with the supporting characters (including one where the inspector’s romantic troubles), but they fall flat.
“Hugo” is rated PG for some language, action, thematic material, peril and brief smoking. It’s appropriate for kids 9 and up, but the problem is, after the first hour, most kids will lose interest.
On The Official Kid Critic Report Card, “Hugo” gets a C.
Surprisingly the movie had more Oscar nominations than any other 2011 film and it picked-up 5 Academy Awards, all for technical achievement. Scorsese lost in the Best Director competition.