PhotobucketHugo 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.

14 Responses to “Hugo”

  1. I have to wonder why you decided to see this film, and I was a little surprised you enjoyed it that much. I was thinking I should read the book (which is a children’s book that has about 200 pages of text, and 300 pages of pictures, making it a very quick read) before I saw it, though, so I don’t know when I’ll get a chance. If the 3-D is that worthwhile, I guess I’d better hurry up. Nice review!


  2. I thought the movie was good. The 3-d was amazing. The only thing missing was that “Spielberg magic”, with the kids. I didn’t really connect with them emotionally. But overall, a good effort.


  3. Great review, Mark! You make some strong points. I totally understand what you liked and what you didn’t. I’m dying to see this, btw, but I fear they will dub it in Spanish because it’s a “kid’s film”.


  4. Hi Mark! Great review as always! I have to say, the trailer did nothing for me and it seemed to be trying too hard to make me nostalgic and as you say -it had that air of a lecture about it. I see you also picked up on the movie not being entirely aimed at children…..which does beg the question – can this sort of hommage/informative piece be made without the childish slant? Did you see Arthur Christmas btw? That film balanced adult themes and children’s adventure perfectly I felt…I was hoping to hear the same about HUGO.


    • I didn’t care for Arthur Christmas actually. I felt it was aimed squarely at very young children. I found the multiple Santa Clauses kind of strange. It also had a very cold, technological aspect that didn’t have a very warm Christmas spirit. Despite its problems, I liked Hugo quite a bit more.

      Thanks for the positive feedback, my friend! When is your next podcast?


  5. Hi mark, nice review, I got more interested in seeing this movie after the awards it won at the Oscars. I like the idea about a boy building a machine or robot.but m not so sure if I would be interested in the formative years of film making. So should I still be excited about seeing this?as a fantasy adventure?


  6. martin250 Says:

    I saw this the day after your recommendation above (i was under martin). yes i would give this the same rating. visually stunning. quite wholesome. hard to think that this is the same director of mean streets and taxi driver.


  7. I had positive and negative reactions a lot like your own.

    In the first category, there’s the look of the thing. I continue to be amazed at the skill of the visual artists — photographers, animators, designers (in this case MACHINERY designers), and all the rest — working in movies today. They put their much more famous colleagues — the Jasper Johns and Jim Dines of this world, along with all the talentless followers-after who get by selling stuff they’ve made with foundation grants to government museums — in the shade. 1000 years from now when they write the history of 21st century art, half of it’ll be concerned with movies and the artists that work in them, none of whom any of us has ever heard of.

    Secondly comes the writing. In contrast with your reaction, I liked the first half better than the second. I got taken up with the visual magic and wondering about who the people were and why they were behaving they way they did. It’s when those puzzles were resolved — about halfway through — that the pacing went out the window and the plot turned sappy, with angels coming out of nowhere to bestow benevolence on everyone in sight regardless of what their problems or personalities had been up to that time.

    How is it that a director who, despite his obvious lapses of taste, was able to keep stories moving forward (and inject comedy) as well as he did in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, King of Comedy and Goodfellas, could churn out such dreary plodders as The Last Temptation of Christ, Age of Innocence and The Aviator — to a lesser extent this one?


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