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Review: Hugo (2011)

Hugo (2011)

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Premise: Set in Paris in the 1930s, an orphan (Asa Butterfield) living in a train station discovers that the owner of a toy shop may be a famous filmmaker.

What Works: Although Hugo is directed by Martin Scorsese, it does not look like any other film Scorsese has made. In fact, Hugo looks much more like a Steven Spielberg picture; it is whimsical and romantic, it is told from the point of view of child characters, and it is a love letter to a filmmaker whose legacy has certainly influenced Spielberg’s filmography. But those qualities suit the film and its approach to its subject. The fluid camera moves and the use of digital edits complement the mechanical efficiency that is a constant thematic image throughout the picture, found in the gears and sprockets that constantly frame the action of the film. This is enhanced by the use of 3-D technology. Although 3-D has largely been an oversold gimmick whose benefit to the cinema-going experience is questionable, the effect works in Hugo. It works in part because it is used effectively, with objects coming off the screen or allowing greater depth of field, but also because it emphasizes cinema as a magic trick. Hugo short hands the history of cinema, reminding the audience of the form’s roots as a sideshow attraction, and the 3-D effect complements the love and appreciation that the story has for the marriage of stagecraft and technology that cinema embodies. The mechanical qualities of Hugo are balanced by its humanistic sensibilities, found in in the film’s excellent performances. Young actors Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz lead the cast and the pair does a great job. As the title character, Butterfield is mature and crafty for his age but he is also a believable youth and has the vulnerability inherent to being a young boy. The flashbacks to his relationship with his father are done briefly but effectively and give Hugo a lot of pathos appeal without overdoing it. Chloe Grace Moretz is also very impressive in her role and the relationship  that her character has with Hugo is very sweet. Also impressive is Ben Kingsley as the mysterious shopkeeper. Kingsley’s character has been hurt and he carries some significant demons along with him. Kingsley does not get much screen time but he makes a big impression in the scenes that he has. The combination of the technical filmmaking craft and organic human qualities makes Hugo an impressive synthesis of and meditation on what filmmaking can and should be.

What Doesn’t: Hugo’s weakest element involves a station attendant played by Sacha Baron Cohen. This character is the chief antagonist of the film as he pursues Hugo and other orphaned children. Although Cohen is good in the role, the conflict between his character and Hugo never really goes anywhere. It never escalates and its conclusion does not bring anything to a resolution. The subplot is there is provide some pressure on the main character, and it does that. The film would be significantly weaker without it and parts of it do unify effectively with the rest of the story. But if this conflict were stronger the film a whole would be sturdier as a result. 

Bottom Line: Hugo may be Martin Scorsese’s best feature film in over a decade. It is a very accomplished and satisfying film that is a genuine crowd pleaser but it is also a movie that is smart and insightful about human experience, motion pictures, and the way those two things relate to one another.

Episode: #385 (April 22, 2012)