Hugo is a film about the magic of cinema, the storytelling possibilities it holds, how you can sit in a dark room and be drawn into worlds and an experience unlike any other. The legendary director Martin Scorsese, here delivering his first fictional feature film in over 10 years that doesn’t star Leonardo DiCaprio, is clearly as much of a fan of cinema as you can get, his love for the art form oozing out of every seam.
Based on the book by Brian Selznick, the story follows Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a resourceful young boy who lives in a train station in 1930s Paris, forced to do so after his father (Jude Law) died in a fire and he was taken there by his uncle (Ray Winstone). All he has left of his father is a strange “automaton,” a mechanised doll, that they were working on together. One day Hugo meets a toy salesman (Ben Kingsley) and his god-daughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). With the help of the latter he tries to uncover the mystery he finds himself wrapped up in, all the while trying to avoid the villainous Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his guard dog.
It is set up as a kids film, with its whimsical and adventurous feel, it’s jaunty, French-style score by Howard Shore, and Christmas-like feel. And perhaps most of all because it centres mostly on kids – one kid in particular, the eponymous Hugo – and we experience things through the wondrous perspective of a child out in the world by himself, in a “treacherous place,” as Cohen’s Station Inspector warns him at one point. So why then does it feel more manufactured than it does genuine?
As strange as it may be to say the reason for that may be because it’s so well detailed, so lovingly prepared, and with its eye on the sheer wonders of film as a form of art that it can often feel cold and distant. Hugo is definitely a relatable leading figure with his charming innocence and vulnerability mixed with a necessary sort of confidence, and he is wonderfully portrayed by relative newcomer Asa Butterfield (Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, Son of Rambow). He’s surrounded by a plethora of distinctive and wonderfully realised characters and actors portraying them including Ben Kingsley, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer and particularly Moretz (Kick-Ass, Let Me In) as the loveable and adventure-hungry Isabelle.
As well as the film is made by one of the best and most experienced directors in the business, it does suffer from a rather fragmented narrative. The first half of the film is the adventurous side of it, dealing with establishing the world of this busy 1930s Parisian Train Station and introducing us to its vast array of characters – the more recognisably kid friendly aspects. But about half way through, once more of the mystery is solved, it turns into more of a love letter to cinema itself, explicitly looking at the early days of film and in particular one of the key figureheads (I won’t spoil the surprise of who). While this was the aspect of it I enjoyed most – simply because I personally tend to be fascinated by film history – it does feel very at odds with that first half, almost as if the two sections are fighting to be the most important part of the film.
There are several segments in Hugo that had me absolutely glued to the screen, wide-eyed and slack-jawed at some of the visual artistry (lots of smooth swooping camera shots and views of the surrounding city) and imagination on display, and fascinated by the level of care and attention that has clearly went into the film. But at other times I felt myself frustrated that it didn’t tug at my heart strings more, that I didn’t truly connect with Hugo and his journey on an emotional level instead on one of extreme admiration. Like the automaton at the centre of the film’s mystery, it is meticulously crafted but there’s something genuinely human lacking. Still, this is a seasoned master of filmmaking delivering his loving ode to the art of cinema. We should cherish that, warts and all.