Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Lee, Ben Kingsley
Hugo is a mis-marketed and mis-sold film. The ads would lead you to believe that it’s a fun kid’s fantasy film. Also, Martin Scorsese’ name on the film could lead you to believe that this is a mainstream release. Hugo is neither of these things, at least not completely. With that said, what Hugo is is something so different that it requires discussion.
This film is set in 1930’s Paris and it follows the adventures of a young orphan living in the walls of a train station stealing food and parts to try and repair an automaton. The automaton is a robot the young boy and his father were trying to repair before his father died. This little project leads the young boy on an amazing adventure through the world of silent film.
Hugo is a subtle, nuanced film featuring a true heart and passion for film that just doesn’t come across in most modern day films. With that said it’s not perfect. The biggest problem is that the film feels painfully long throughout the first act. The first 30 to 45 minutes could have been handled in half the time. Hugo is actually two connected but broken stories. The first story comes to a climax halfway through the film and that climax leads Hugo on a new journey through a new story. You definitely can’t have one story without the other; so the first story should have been compressed to keep the film’s length more manageable. It’s a tough call on the editing because some of the most clever story elements evolve throughout the first act. The whole thing makes me miss Thelma Schoomaker, Scorsese’ partner in crime. She edited the director’s best work. She truly understood Scorsese’ storytelling and knew how to tweak it and make it pace a little better.
The first story of Hugo trying to finish the automaton leads Hugo deep into a world he loves, the world of film. When this second story begins you can feel Scorsese sharing his heart and passion for the medium with us. There’s even a somewhat blatant riff on how terribly many original film prints have been treated and how so much great art has been lost. This may be a little spoilery so tread carefully through the rest of this review up to the last paragraph if that sort of thing matters to you. The second story reveals some character philosophies that are truly magical. Hugo believes himself to be a part of a greater machine. That machine is the world. He and his father were fixers of clocks and or a robot. Hugo has evolved to be a fixer of the greater machine. That is what he believes his job is as a part of the machine and he believes everyone is a part and they are all required to keep the machine running. He tells a friend that she has to figure out what her job is, what her part to play is. When she eventually does discover her job it’s moving and again, magical.
The other philosophy comes from a destroyed man, a man that found his passion in film and lost it all during the war. He was a magician looking to create the greatest magic of all time and he discovered that magic in film. He became a filmmaker and he believed himself and others like him to truly be magicians on an epic level. The simple idea that movies are magical is so right and so perfect and so amazingly represented in this film that it too is moving. Great filmmakers are lords of illusion, they can control your emotions better than the greatest hypnotist, they can misdirect, they can make anything disappear and reappear, they can literally do anything.
This film is set during the silent film era. Scorsese tells his stories in such a fantastic homage to the era that you may not even realize it’s happening until halfway through the film. Along with the main story of the film there are all of these simple little vignettes that are happening in the background and integrated into the film that are all told in formulaic silent film style. One such story follows a man who is enamored with a lady but her dog keeps him from getting close to her. His eventual solution is sweet and fitting. The film’s soundtrack and even the sets of the film are all steeped in the silent film era. The whole thing is simply brilliant.
While doing a homage to the beginnings of film Scorsese also looks forward to the future of film by not just converting Hugo to 3-D but taking the time and budget to utilize and even upgrade James Cameron’s 3-D Avatar technology to shoot Hugo. The resulting film is stunning and some of the very best 3-D ever put on the big screen.
I started this review by implying that Hugo might not be a mainstream film. Hugo in a way feels like a huge budget art house film. There are the silent film references for one thing but more importantly Hugo is a film by a hardcore film fan for hardcore film fans. The greater your passion for film as a medium for storytelling the more Hugo is likely to affect you. You don’t have to be the hardcore film fanatic to like Hugo, but if you are the last hour of the film will have you riveted. The film execution has to be dinged for the length and pace in the early act but Scorsese makes up so much ground for that flaw with his creation of such a unique world for the film fan to play in. Acting is superlative throughout the film. Asa Butterfield does his best Elijah Wood acting with his big blue eyes but it works most of the time. Chloe Grace Moretz is again amazing just as she was in Kick Ass and Let Me In. Here she’s supposed to be irritating and she is. She ties up the film perfectly at the end too. It’s awesome to see Christopher Lee doing such good work here and Ben Kingsley is great just as he always is when he’s not slumming in some terrible movie. If you sit down in front of Hugo looking for something in the realm of Harry Potter you’re probably going to be disappointed. Sit down in front of Hugo expecting one of the magicians of film to use his bag of tricks to show us why this brand of magic is so important and you’ll love this film.