Written by John Logan
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Hugo is a boy living in 1931 Paris, holed up in the clockwork behind the scenes of the Gare Montparnasse railway station. He has ended up in this strange place due to the death of his father and subsequent death by drunkenness of his uncle. The only thing Hugo has left to remember his father by is a broken automaton his parent recovered from the museum where he worked. Hugo swipes clockwork toys from a store in the station to use as spare parts in rebuilding the mysterious machine. Eventually, he’s caught by Mr. Georges (Sir Benjamin Kingsley), the toy store’s owner who is curious about the strange notebook of sketches in Hugo’s possession. Hugo befriends Mr. Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) and the two work to uncover the secret behind the automaton. However, looming over our protagonist is the specter of the station inspector and being carted away to an orphanage.
The opening of this movie by filmmaker Martin Scorsese is sweeping and exciting and attempts to set the stage, both in plot and tone, of a grand adventure story. Very quickly we have all our players introduced and established. The mystery surrounding Hugo is put center stage and his sometimes rocky and developing relationship with Mr. Georges is beginning to unfold. However, very quickly the cracks start to show as this slightly over two-hour long movie rolls on before us. The most significant problem I have with Hugo is the lack of natural emotional background given to Hugo. In the broadest of strokes, we have his relationship with his beloved father and his neglectful drunken uncle established. Jude Law plays his father and Ray Winstone his uncle, both actors of considerable talent who are utterly wasted and play characters who should be crucial to making connections between Hugo and the audience.
The emotional weight of the film is split between Hugo’s burgeoning friendship with Isabelle and Mr. Georges. These characters are essential to the plot and do end up circling to make a connection with Hugo’s past but are not as formative as his relationship with his father and uncle. Chloe Grace Moretz plays Isabelle and just painfully exudes actor kid in everything she does, the way she emotes and holds herself never feel genuine. The same with Asa Butterfield as Hugo. Now, this may not entirely be on the kids but more so with Scorsese who is directing his first family movie and his first movie that has child protagonists. Scorsese is a master director, but he is in territory that is not his natural fit and the awkwardness shows.
The moments where he does shine through are when the story delves into early film history. Years ago I watched A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, a documentary where the director looks at some filmmakers and how they influenced both the medium of film and himself. As the mystery is revealed, we end up getting some real-life historical information on the roots of movies in France, with even a brief appearance by the Lumiere brothers. You can feel Scorsese’s love in these moments and when events in the plot allow him to make an homage to classic movie scenes. There’s a callback to a Harold Lloyd clocktower stunt that the kids see in a theater that happens during a chase scene. However, instead of existing just as a nod to a great film, we’re made painfully aware of the artificiality of the movie we’re currently watching.
The world of Hugo is drenched in cloying CG and the opening shot, meant to be this grand single zoom shot from above the city of Paris and into the eye of Hugo as he peers out of a clock face, loses its grandeur when everyone walking through the station is so obviously cut and pasted from green screened footage. It is admirably ambitious but will never hold up after years have gone by. That classic Harold Lloyd bit however still looks impressive because he was there on a real tower, really climbing it. Hugo is a well-meaning picture but just never managed to capture my interest or convey the sense of magic it is so convinced it possesses.