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Sunday, January 29, 2012


As directed by Martin Scorsese, Hugo, based on a children’s book by Brian Selznick, is both a love letter to the movie and a public service announcement on behalf of film preservation. In between these jarringly personal moments, Hugo manages to be emotionally affecting without ever fully taking off and becoming a compelling movie.

Part of the problem is that Hugo seems trapped between a movie for kids and a movie for adults. (This situation was made evident even before the film had started. The trailers were an odd mix of animated films and gory, violent action films.) Perhaps I am being unfair to today’s children, but I find it hard to believe great numbers of them would be enthralled by Scorsese’s reusing images from the earliest days of film. Even some adults, who can presumably appreciate the pieces in context, might find their prevalence a little numbing.

The acting seems off in a lot of ways, too. For the most part, it’s the child actors whose acting seems more naturalistic, whereas some of the adult roles are pitched too strongly toward the buffoonish. In side characters, this is not a problem, but Sacha Baron Cohen Inspector Gustav is too prominent a character to be so ridiculous and underdeveloped. Asa Butterfield was near perfect in the title role, and Chloe Grace Moretz managed to capture her character’s innocence, snobbery, and charm quite masterfully. Among the adults, Ben Kingsley has the standout performance as the broken, bitter old filmmaker George Melies, a man who believes his work has been forgotten and who has been reduced to selling cheap toys in a train station.

The train station, where Melies works and where Hugo lives, maintaining the clocks in the place of his drunken, departed uncle, is rendered in great detail by Scorsese’s camera. It is the best use of and justification for the 3D, which, to come clean with my prejudices, always feels like an unnecessary element to me. I have never really felt that 3D did anything to enhance the realism of the world on screen, and for the most Hugo did nothing to change that belief, despite the neatness of its visual tricks. (I should also admit that while my vision isn’t so bad as to render 3D ineffective, I do tend to find the effects blurrier or less impressive than others.)

But if Scorsese feels that his use of 3D is somehow equivalent to Melies’ innovations in the early days of film, and indeed that seems like the primary motivation for using the technology, than I have to say I think he is mistaken. Nothing in Hugo has the jarring, world-altering feel that the Lumiere brothers’ speeding train had to the earliest moviegoers.

As a moviegoer more concerned with narrative and performance than technology and craft, I found that Hugo drifted at times, whenever it seemed more focused on showing off its new toys than telling its story. However, the film is buoyed by some great acting on the part of Kingsley and the two children, and is ultimately surprisingly resonant and touching.

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