I almost saw Hugo at the movies. Almost, but not quite. For one reason or another, I waited for the Blu-ray, and come the appointed day, as beautiful as the thing looked, here at home it felt... flat. And I think there's a reason for that. It's overgenerous in my estimation, but you could call Hugo a love letter to cinema, and maybe if I'd seen it on the big screen the experience would have been more memorable. As is, I almost liked it, but not quite.
In many ways the latest from Martin Scorsese marks an outlandish change of pace for the filmmaker. He's one of the greats, of course, and if we were in any danger of forgetting that fact, he's had rather a renaissance of late, with The Departed, Shutter Island and his involvement in HBO's Boardwalk Empire.
In such storied company, Hugo seems almost an aberration: it's an uplifting, Amelie-esque movie about movies, complete with cartoonish characters, a saccharine-sweet narrative, and that most romantic backdrop, classic Paris. It's about a little orphan boy who lives in the walls of an ornate train station in said city, and longs for one last message from his dearly departed father. This Hugo (Asa Butterfeld) hopes he'll have if he can just fix the broken automaton they were working on in advance of the accident that left him bereft.
However, were it so simple, he'd have done it already, but Hugo's life - hard enough as it is - is made still more miserable by Sacha Baron Cohen's nameless Station Inspector, meanwhile Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), the owner of a small magic shop, seems to have it in for him. When the monstrous Monseiur holds Hugo's precious notebook hostage, our little fellow's only hope is his adopted daughter, Hit-Girl. No! I mean Isabelle! In any case, Chloë Grace Moretz - who you might also recall from Let Me In - as a precocious creature desperate to have an adventure the equal of those from the stories. Together then, Hugo and Isabelle uncover a mystery involving the automaton, an early film long thought lost, and a strange, sad man haunted by his past.
Hugo is a no expenses spared adaptation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick: the 2007 Caldecott award-winner described by its author as "not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things." Whatever it is or is not, I'm afraid I haven't read the thing - poor show sir! - so I can't speak to where exactly the issues I had with Hugo originated, but at a glance, the filmmakers don't appear to have taken any great liberties with the source material.
Perhaps that's the problem, because Hugo is truly two movies, about an hour long each. The first is a meandering farce, featuring Cohen in Borat mode, whilst the second is a deeply human and moderately moving story, starring Ben Kingsley at his best, Helen McRory as his wistful wife, and a star-studded cast of bit-part players. The kids hardly factor into this latter half, and it's as well, because they're only ever so-so. As Isabelle, Moretz does her best Hermione, which is fine, but Butterfeld's moody Hugo is an accumulation of nervous energy and emo eyeliner. In his absence Hugo seems like it might just together; to wit, the older actors bear the lion's share of the movie's most powerful moments, in vignettes that have more heart than Hugo's whole story.
These asides are nice, but the entire enterprise is oriented around Hugo himself, and Butterfeld just isn't up to snuff. Nor is the narrative paced or structured in such a way as to take the onus off this miscast young actor. As I was saying, around the midpoint of the film, everything changes - for the better, from my perspective - but while children might be entertained by the first bit, they'll be bored to tears by the second, meanwhile older viewers are apt to appreciate the touching meta-movie with which Hugo concludes, though most everything before that point will drive them to distraction.
Were Hugo one thing or the other, I could simply say this isn't for me, and let that be that, or praise Scorsese for an affectionate celebration of cinema. As it is - which is to say a bit of this, and a bit of that - I honestly don't know who this film is for, and I doubt the director does either. Though the occasional 3D sequences stick out like sore thumbs, it certainly looks the part, and Howard Shore's score is a modest success as well, but beyond its incredible presentation, Hugo is oddly hollow; a beautiful, but broken automaton.