Hugo (2011)

Starring Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Expectations: High, but really cautious. Everything I hear sounds good, but whenever I see footage it looks dumb.


OK, I’m going to try and rein in my negativity. I did like Hugo, but I take issue with much of it as a film. With all the film history stuff contained in the film Scorsese is preaching to the choir with me, and I doubt that any kids in the audience are going to take the film’s look back at the life’s work of George Méliès and run with it to their nearest DVD retailer to snatch up a copy of A Trip to the Moon. I don’t know… I think this is another case of me just being too jaded to truly appreciate the film at hand, although I have to say that I don’t think it’s an entirely well made film. For Scorsese to get so much respect for this movie is ridiculous as it shows very little of the clever, powerful director he once was. I have to imagine it’s because this is easily one of the safest and most boringly mainstream movies of his entire career, but hey, I generally hate movies about movies, so your mileage may vary.

Hugo is about a boy name Hugo who lives in the crawlspaces of the train station. He winds the clocks and pretty much keeps to himself, except to steal a little clockwork gear every once in a while. He does this because he’s got an automaton stashed away in his home, and he’s desperately trying to fix it. Despite this fantasy setup, the film is a lot more grounded than you’d expect it to be from the marketing. Don’t get me wrong, everything plays out in somewhat comical, ridiculous ways, but it still feels tied to our reality by all the film history lessons sprinkled throughout.

And boy, are there a lot of those. They kind of sneak up on you too (even though I knew they were coming), as they seemingly have nothing to do with the plot when they first start cropping up around the halfway mark. They are slowly doled out over the remaining course of the film, and while this is easily the best part of the film, it’s still pretty detached emotionally and feels self-indulgent. None of the characters were developed enough for me to form any connection with them, so consequentially it made the film seem like it wasn’t as concerned with telling a character-driven story as it was educating people on silent film. It definitely has its moments where it works great, but I was unable to truly dive into the film.

One of the reasons I stayed on the fringe of the story was the incredibly contrived nature of the entire film’s plot. We’re expected to believe that something like five giant coincidences all came together to bring these exact people together at this particular moment. OK, so sometimes that sort of thing does happen, but if you start digging and you realize that just about everything in the film is based on reality except for Hugo and the story of his automaton, you’ll also realize that everything related to Hugo is where the film logically falls apart.

OK, you say, “It’s just a movie. Have fun with it!” I tried, but beyond the contrived plot points intersecting with reality there’s also the lack of creativity on the part of Scorsese. This is like Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin, a film where a respected director who has a confident control over his craft ditches nearly all of that and embraces every bullshit modern filmmaking trope available to him. Was McG teaching a class down at the Learning Annex and Spielberg and Scorsese decided to check it out? I know I might sound like an old man bitching about the good ole days, but damn it, cameras can’t go through windows. I don’t want to see it. “Movie magic” has been available to filmmakers ever since Méliès, but one thing has remained constant: the physicality of the camera. Advances have been made to free it up, such as Steadicam, but it still remained a physical object ruled by the laws of physics. A virtual camera completely frees the camera (and it’s understandable why this might sound exciting to a director), but for me it betrays everything that film is. Digitally masking edits to create one seamless, impossible shot is absolutely one of the greatest travesties of the modern era of filmmaking, and goddamn if Scorsese doesn’t do it in Hugo numerous times. Imagine if that amazing tracking shot in Goodfellas, the one that goes all the way from the car, down the stairs, through the kitchen and into the club was achieved through multiple, masked edits on a computer. Would you have the same respect for the shot, or for Scorsese? No, it wouldn’t even have half the power it contained. The shot is amazing in its artistry and a joy to watch because the reality of it is undeniable. The move to virtual cameras and masking edits between CGI and actual footage removes all the power and artistry of a shot such as this and it kills me inside every time I see it being done by a respected director. I’ve been told I don’t like it because I don’t like change, but no, I don’t like it because it’s disingenuous and is ruining film. Compromise and ingenuity are a good thing; you’d think a film glorifying Méliès would understand that.

On a more positive note: Ben Kingsley is fantastic as George Méliès and I wish he was in the movie more. I thought Asa Butterfield who played Hugo was pretty lackluster, but his female sidekick played by Chloë Grace Moretz more than made up for his shortcomings. Sacha Baron Cohen played his character well, but I HATED his character. He’s neither interesting or entertaining, and honestly he could have been cut completely out of the movie and no one would have cared. Well, no one except Sacha Baron Cohen.

I think I would have enjoyed Hugo more if I knew less about it going in. I knew virtually all the major twists, although I was unaware that they were the big reveals of the film. Even still, I enjoyed Hugo for what it was and I did like seeing Méliès get some mainstream credit for the amazing work he did to create and further the sci-fi/fantasy genre in film. The scenes within his studio are excellent and it’s truly magical to see the sets and scenes from these iconic films recreated for this new, big-budget production. They go a long way to showcase the inventive spirit and the sheer amount of work that went into his films; I only wish that Hugo shared that same spirit. If nothing else, Hugo did work on me in one key way: it excited me again to delve into the work of Méliès, rekindling a bit of that old feeling I had for silent films during my discovery of their magic many years ago.

14 comments to Hugo (2011)

  • The movie itself runs a bit long at 127 minutes, but Hugo is worth every minute for the visual feast it provides, and features Scorsese in probably his most delightful and elegant mood ever, especially with all of the beautiful 3-D. Good review Will.

  • Great review and I’m with you on most of it (except for the virtual camera). The characters were not fleshed out enough making it all feel very clinical trying to get to the history lesson. As you say it does wet your appetite to revisit the silent movies.

    btw, there is a small typo at the beginning (say “once once” instead of “once was”

    • Thanks! It’s nice to know I’m not alone in thinking this is just OK.

      And thanks for getting that typo! It’s amazing the things we miss, even after re-reading something multiple times.

  • I think you touched upon why I dislike CG in animation as well. In old stuff, the camera was limited by the sheer difficulty of animating certain shots, but when it’s all done with CG it feels cheap. Part of enjoying good animation is just knowing the colossal amount of skill and effort that goes into a difficult shot, and I just can’t respect it when they take the cheap rout.

    • Yeah man, that’s pretty much my main beef with the digital age. That stupid virtual camera. I can get behind some CG creatures if they’re done well, but dumb camera stuff just kills me. It definitely bothers me in animation as well. I’m unsure if it’s actually cheaper these days, but maybe you mean cheaper as in creatively bankrupt. If so, I’m totally with you. While it does take some vision to craft, it’s far less exciting and impressive.

      • I suppose by cheap I mean lazy. It’s as if they just say “don’t bother doing it right, we can just have a computer do it for us.”

        • Yeah that’s the root of the problem. Laziness. Instead of having to invest blood, sweat and tears, they know they can achieve it via a computer and so they choose the path of least resistance. Sometimes CG stuff is the way to go, but most of the time that resistance they’re avoiding is exactly what pushes them creatively to make something incredible.

  • Same boat Will. I liked the movie but didn’t think the world of it unlike most critics/bloggers out there. It’s pretty terribly paced especially in the first hour and has odd changes of tone and perspective (ie Hugo basically becoming a side-character in his own movie in the second half). If I was a kid who went to see this because of the trailer, I would have walked out lol

    • Yeah it really it strangely paced isn’t it? And I totally agree that kids would be disappointed with it. It’s not really a kid’s movie, despite all the marketing attempting to sell it as such. Damn, now I want to see a little kid indignantly walk out of a movie. Sounds like it would be amusing.

  • Damn, I still haven’t seen this. I’m going to, then I’m coming back here to re-read this and see if I concur.

    Nice review, Will!

  • Dan

    …I’m another who hasn’t got around to seeing this. This is one of the more lukewarm reviews I’ve read about the film. Scorsese usually delivers and I’m expecting to enjoy it but I’ll be wary of going in with too high an expectation after reading your review Will.

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