By Samuel Dent–
It is unlikely that “Hugo” will go down as one of famed director Martin Scorsese’s most renowned or ambitious works. With an illustrious Hollywood filmography that includes items such as “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas,” this is a ball where Scorsese’s love for movies is in the stitching rather than just the surface. “Hugo” is a film for which an individual’s experience will be influenced primarily based on expectations. Those who think Scorsese does his best when aiming gritty might want to sit this one out, though die-hard fans of the director and those looking for something more interesting than typical holiday fare could do far worse than treat themselves and their families to a poem praising the art of cinematic creation.
Adapted from the book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by author Brian Selznick, the cinematic version of “Hugo” thrives on juggling many character threads throughout its two-hour running time. The titular main character is a young boy who keeps the clocks working at a Paris train station in a shiny, greeting-card version of the 1930s. Orphaned and taken under his apathetic uncle’s wing, he remains alone and unloved until an early encounter with an old toy store owner begins to reveal Hugo’s past. In flashbacks, we learn that Hugo and his widowed father were clockmakers until a fire took his father away and poor Hugo was left to finish the project he and his dad had been working on: a strange “automaton” found in a museum and brought home.
The aforementioned machine can write and draw but the function is only a catalyst to the full mystery at hand. “Hugo” is primarily about the magic of cinema and the realization of one’s work and dreams. What starts as a slow, somewhat frustrating first-half accelerates as multiple plot elements about the toy store owner come to fruition and the mystery is revealed. “Hugo” is as much about the title character as it is the legacy and work of a real-life film experimenter in the movie’s era. It is tempting to say where exactly the film goes on its journey of character but revealing too much will spoil those going in cold. There are short films from this artist’s library throughout, all helping to highlight the theme of artistic passion as the film rears its climax.
Concerning performances and writing, it is unfortunate that the supporting cast is much more entertaining to watch than the two young leads. This was probably inevitable given the level of prestige present: Ben Kingsley sinks into his role as the disillusioned, mysterious toy-store owner and the prolific Christopher Lee has fun in a minor role as a bookshop owner. Jude Law even appears for some brief lines as Hugo’s father.
Though Chloë Moretz does well enough as the young Isabelle who befriends Hugo, Asa Butterfield as the title character is passable compared to the rest of his counterparts. Hearing Hugo protest to adults while using stilted arguments and wide eyes comes off as unintentionally funny, even disarming. In a film concerning the magic of cinema, it is jarring to see these things occur when everything else runs like clockwork.
But what gorgeous clockwork it is. Hugo accomplishes its desired cinematic splendor by incorporating fantastic computer-generated-imagery, extensive set work and period costumes into its overall caveat of visual wonder. If you can forgive some dramatic flubs, and if pure escapism is what you’re looking for, it’s worth a trip to the nearest theater so “Hugo” can take you to another place. Just like it’s supposed to.
Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures