Review: 6 out of 10
“Hugo”, based off a book by Brian Selznick, is not another “Harry Potter” wannabe like I originally thought. Sure the kids may remind you of Harry and Hermione, but the heart of Martin Scorsese’s movie is its love letter to film. Particularly to early film pioneer Georges Melies, which means Hogwarts is replaced by a film set and magic wands replaced by cameras and editing.
Asa Butterfield plays the title character, a young boy in 1930s Paris who lives in a big clock above a train station. He spends his days stealing parts for an automaton (robotic man) that he believes holds a message that his dead father (Jude Law) left for him. Eventually he runs into cranky old toy shop owner Georges (Ben Kingsley), who makes Hugo work-off his thefts in the shop. In doing so, Hugo meets Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), Georges' godddaughter who has a big passion for books.
Filmed in 3-D, the set design is really breathtaking—taking us from the streets of Paris to the intricate inner-workings of Hugo’s clock.
Just the first half drags its heels, spending too much time on this sad little kid and only finding thrills and laughs (more like smiles) occasionally from Sacha Baron Cohen—playing the bumbling station inspector, who chases down any kid seen without parents and calls the orphanage on them. There are also a bunch of other train station regulars, including the flower girl (Emily Mortimer) and a woman with a dog (Frances de la Tour), who for some reason get screen time but have nothing to do with anything whatsoever.
Another problem is the actual mystery, which isn’t really one at all. Once Hugo and Isabelle get the robot working, it actually does have a message that points them in the direction of Georges and early film. But while they wonder what it means, we already know what George’s secret happens to be.
It’s only in the last half-hour or so of this 2-plus hour film that Scorsese creates real magic, telling us about Melies. He created his own special effects and spliced the films himself, creating real movie magic for the era.
Melies was responsible for hundreds of movies, one in particular called “Le Voyage dans la Lune” is definitely familiar; even if you’ve never seen the film, you may have seen the same approach used in The Smashing Pumpkins video for “Tonight Tonight.”
It’s here that Scorsese captures the excitement of those early film years and the joy of being able to make them. Sadly it did not end very well for Melies after the first World War.
Butterfield and Moretz are appealing young stars, but are really only background to Ben Kingsley, who shows the heartbreak and, in flashbacks, the exuberance of a man who gave his life to film.
This is one of the better performances I’ve seen all year.
Will kids be interested in this? Will adults want to wade through a first half of aimless adventure aimed at children before Scorsese finally gets to the meat of his film?
“Hugo” is nice entertainment with a lot more filler and distraction than it really needs but it can’t be denied that there is a particular charm to it once it gets to Melies, who earned the name “cinemagician” because of his technical skill.