A magical film about the power of cinema. Less successful as a family film.
‘Hugo’ marks two first-times for legendary director Martin Scorsese – it’s the first time he’s ever done a family film and it’s his first foray into 3-D. And the result is a magical film loaded with excellent 3-D which is basically Scorsese’s love letter to cinema wrapped around a flawed family film.
Based on Brian Selznick’s award-winning bestseller novel, the film is set in 1930’s Paris and follows Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who lives in hiding inside a train station after his watchmaker father (Jude Law) died. Being hunted down by the station master (Sacha Baron Cohen), he’s on the quest to find out a hidden message inside a robot that his father left him which could be something he wanted to tell him. He teams up with Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), he tries to uncover the truth of a message that may have to do with a magical filmmaker Georges Méliès.
Martin Scorsese has been known for his now-classic mob films and more gritty crime dramas that are now timeless. ‘Taxi Driver’, ‘Goodfellas’, ‘Raging Bull’, ‘Casino’, ‘The Departed’, ‘The Aviator’ – the list goes on and on. He’s the last filmmaker you would expect to make a family film, yet this is in a way the perfect material for the director to make the transition. It’s also the first time he has attempted 3-D, and one can be sure that when a director of his caliber gives a shot to the technology, he brings something new to it entirely. But while the film is definitely a magical experience, it’s not quite as perfect as you would expect it to be.
It’s actually a movie with two different plots that never quite come together despite having connections. One is of a young boy trying to find his place in the world after the death of his father, and the only way he can do so is by uncovering what his father’s message to him was. As far as that storyline goes, the film doesn’t necessarily do anything exceptional with it and the result is a pleasing story that never quite escalates to the level the director is famous for. The first act of the film is slow paced and while it’s a treat to look at, it lacks any sort of hook to engage you with its characters. We get some amusing chase scenes as Hugo is chased all across the station by the station master, but we never really find a reason to connect with him even after the flashback that shows who his father was. It’s definitely interesting to watch, but never really satisfies. One hopes that the message that is being uncovered itself might make the journey more worth it.
And it does. It more than does. When the second half of the movie kicks in, we are revealed to what the message really was and from here on out ‘Hugo’ is an exceptional ride that will be a tribute to everyone who calls themselves a cinephile. It’s Martin Scorsese’s tribute to filmmaking and harkens back to the days where filmmaking wasn’t about the business anymore – it was about telling stories. As Hugo and Isabelle connect the dots and find out the secret of a legendary filmmaker Georges Méliès who now refuses to make movies, we are treated to a brillaint montage of how film-making really began. That sequence alone is worth the price of the ticket for any film-lover as it outlines the very first film and the humble beginnings of cinema. We see how the very first film was merely a few seconds of a train coming into a station and how it excited everyone because they felt the train came right at them. It was a circus novelty that people paid for, until a few filmmakers realised that they can use the medium to tell a story. And that they did. I wouldn’t want to tell you more about what exactly happens from this point on, but the film ends on an uplifting note. At its very core, the movie is about the importance of film preservation and the magic that cinema holds. On that front, it’s an excellent and unique film.
But the problem it faces is that the film-making storyline is directly conflicting with the family film that came before it. While the first half was about Hugo looking for the meaning of his father’s message, the second half quickly becomes about another character entirely and doesn’t really gel together with what came before it. In that sense, it has an incoherent plot and I never really felt that the second half did justice to resolve the character arc from the first half. The meaning of the message by the father doesn’t really make sense in the big picture when it comes to the character of Hugo himself. It feels like Martin Scorsese really wanted to make a movie about filmmaking and disguised it in the form of a family film just so he can command the budget it requires to do the film justice. I don’t know if the novel itself faced this problem, but it’s certainly evident here and takes away from the impact of the film as a whole.
While audiences may have tired of 3-D at this point, I ask you to give this one a chance. Martin Scorsese has made an excellent use of 3-D in a way that no director has before. Every single shot is thought out and framed with 3-D in mind from the outset. The locales look magical and even moreso in 3-D and completely immerse you into the world that the film has set for the viewer. Instead of a gimmick, Scorsese recognises the power of 3-D as a way to further involve the audience into the story and the result is a beautiful-looking film that’s a must-see in 3-D.
Asa Butterfield was effective in ‘The Boy in Striped Pajamas’ way back in 2008, and does a good job as Hugo Cabret here. He may not have a huge emotional range, but connects with the character and actually shines in the film’s more intense moments. But the real winner here is Chloe Moretz who once again gives a commanding performance and proves why she’s the best young actress working in Holywood right now. From her dialogue delivery to her expressions, she has full confidence in her abilities and brings a new layer of depth to her role. Sacha Baron Cohen is given a comedic role here and he brings a lot of his characterization from ‘Borat’ into the character which gets more human as the film goes on. It’s great to see Ben Kingsley do a good film after a long time and his performance here shines as a washed up director.
For kids, it’s a decent adventure which doesn’t hold much appeal to them in terms of content and never manages to seamlessly be both those films in a satisfying manner. But ‘Hugo’ is a gift to all film-lovers – it’s a beautiful ride to a time where movies used to be magic.