Hugo is a children’s fantasy set during the early 1930s at a Paris railway station. Our story concerns a 12 year old boy, Hugo Cabret, who maintains the congregation of clocks around the train depot. He’s an orphan and lives between the air ducts and hidden passageways that connect the timepieces. Hugo’s primary passion is refurbishing a broken automaton his father was fixing before he perished in a museum fire. The gadget looks like a metal mechanical man who writes with a pen. Hugo now spends his days locating the numerous hard-to-find parts so that he might get it to operate one day and complete his father’s work. The mechanism is still conspicuously missing a heart-shaped key.
THE GOOD: Hugo is a beautifully shot, big-budget, family epic in 3-D. In fact it’s probably the best use of 3-D since Avatar. In an era where movies are converted into 3-D for the purely monetary reasons, Hugo actually utilizes the format to its advantage. For example, when Hugo and Isabelle locate a small wooden box in the ceiling of her home, a mass of paper, sketches, and paintings are expelled from within after it comes tumbling to the floor. The effect is a perfectly realized vision of drawings flying throughout the theater. On the surface, the action involves getting this automaton to run, but there’s much more. The plot delves deeper and exalts the formative years of film and the importance of French filmmaker Georges Méliès. Ben Kingsley is engaging as the pioneer. The story has a real appreciation for his important contributions to the development of cinema. This is much more than simply a kid’s picture and anyone with an appreciation for movie history is sure to be engaged.
THE BAD: The pacing of the narrative is incredibly lethargic. The first half is at times painfully slow. Our callow star doesn’t help. Young actor Asa Butterfield is too vague and lifeless as Hugo Cabret to carry the picture. A sad little boy, he’s the human equivalent of a tranquilizer. Sacha Baron Cohen provides mild comic relief as the Station Inspector, but he too becomes tiresome. Only in the second half do things pick up with the focus on Ben Kingsley’s character. Even then, the exposition frequently feels more like education than entertainment.
Hugo is a sincere valentine celebrating the value of film preservation from the heart of Martin Scorsese. An admirable perspective and one that definitely will resonate with any lover of the medium. But the chronicle can be a bit didactic. An adventure should be fun and this often feels like a lecture. Luckily production design wins out over those dilemmas. The re-creations of George Méliès’ cinemas are extraordinary and some of the most elegant images I’ve seen all year. It inspired me to seek out his most famous film made way back in 1902, A Trip to the Moon. Granted the story is probably more appreciated by adults than children. Even I struggled with the momentum at times. However it’s a gorgeously realized work of art. Without question an exquisite use of 3-D. Hugo celebrates a lot of what I love about movies and for this film fan, that was enough.