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Hugo (2011)

Oil and Trouble

Believe it or not, I struggle with writing negative reviews. Not with actually putting them together--that's often the fun part--but with having to admit to the world that I don't like a film that the overwhelming majority of critics and moviegoers seem to have agreed is magical. That's the case with Hugo, Martin Scorsese's gorgeous, overlong, and utterly pointless new holiday picture.

Before diving in, let me share two things that may help you disregard my opinion and send you running to the theatre:

1. I'm going to compare Hugo to The Muppets and Avatar, two movies I hated.

2. I saw Hugo at 7:30pm, on the same day that I woke up at 1:30am; plowed through half a movie and a full movie review; put in a full day of work at my day-job; and rushed home to spend time with my family. Yes, after all that, I went out to see a two-hour 3D kids' film--during which I struggled to stay awake.

Still with me? Okay, good. Let's dive in.

Despite the mysterious, whimsical music and strange imagery of the gold-tinted commercials, this movie is not a thrilling adventure or a complex puzzle. It's a two-hour story about an orphan darting around a train station. Sure, screenwriter John Logan (working from Brian Selznick's young-adult novel) throws in a quest to learn the secret of the station's cantankerous toy store owner--but anyone past the age of twelve will have the entire plot pegged inside of ten minutes--except for those, like me, who will spend the rest of the film hoping against hope that they're wrong about the story.

For their part, Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson do their best to distract the audience from the fact that the script is a hodge-podge of kids'-movie clichés by setting it in a truly amazing 3D environment. If you must endure this movie, don't cheat yourself by attending a 2D screening. Hugo is a triumph of depth and and art direction the likes of which I've never seen. As Hugo (Asa Butterfield) weaves through the walls of the station, making sure its massive clocks run on time, he slips past marvels of gear-driven machinery, all plated in nostalgia-gold. Even his rich fantasy life stars charming special effects from the early days of cinema.

Like The Muppets, Hugo is a filmmaker's love letter to what they perceive as a priceless bygone era of artistry. The toy shop owner turns out to be George Méliès (Ben Kingsley), the famous movie pioneer who rocked the world's imagination with 1902's A Trip to the Moon. Hugo bursts briefly to life during flashbacks to Méliès' early career building sets and overseeing creatively ambitious sci-fi productions. I wished Scorsese had just created a straight-up biopic of the man instead of injecting this uninteresting, childish nonsense into the story.

Yeah, I'm playing the grumpy old man again. But I'm sorry, this movie is not good. In order for it to work, the director would have to cut it down to TV length (45 minutes, tops), restructure the screenplay, and ditch at least four characters. We learn very early on that Hugo went to live with his drunk uncle (Ray Winstone) in the train station after his father (Jude Law) died in a fire.* His uncle then abandoned him, leaving Hugo to steal food and trinkets and avoid detection by the wacky Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen).

The Station Inspector, in addition to having a mechanical leg brace and a large, angry dog, is socially awkward around the cute girl at the flower shop (Emily Mortimer). Their feeble attempts at romance are often interrupted by the comical misadventures of two regular customers at the station's cafe, misadventures which also involve dogs. Perhaps there's a reason to care buried deep, deep, deep beneath the googly eyes, yipping pets, and unfunny mad dashes through the station--none of which, ironically, have any of the visual panache or kineticism of the film's non-action scenes--but I couldn't come up with one. This is a light family film, meaning the characters will end up exactly where and with whom you assume they will the first time you lay eyes on them.

Sadly, that's a large portion of the movie. It's shoddy camouflage for the meat and potatoes, which sees Hugo teaming up with a girl named Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who lives with Méliès and his wife, Jeanne (Helen McCrory). She loves to read and is desperate to go on an adventure. The most action she sees is getting chased out of a movie theatre and watching Hugo get chased by the Station Inspector. I'm convinced Moretz's purpose in this film is to offer a counterweight to Kingsley, Butterfield, and McCrory's glumness. Her smile and the set design are all that keep Hugo from being completely gray and flat.

You may wonder how the silver robot man from the ad campaign figures into the movie. I'm reminded of comedian Patton Oswalt's bit about the Star Wars prequels--specifically, how the creation of the world-annihilating Death Star was relegated to a shot of Darth Vader and the Emperor looking at a small dot in the middle of the screen. That's the same with the automaton, which, allegedly, holds the key to the film's mystery. Hugo spends a great deal of time getting it to work, eventually unlocking the mechanism that causes it to draw the famous image of Méliès' rocket-eyed moon-man. Later, the silent, silver mannequin gets thrown in front of a train. Remember how the Gran Torino in Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino sat in a back yard for ninety-five percent of the picture? Yeah, it's like that.

One of the most frustrating aspects of Hugo is that the mystery of Méliès is so pathetic. After World War I, he found that audiences didn't care for his brand of whimsy. So he gave up filmmaking and became a toy salesman. The entire film is shrouded in suspicion regarding the great tragedy that turned a once proud and cheerful artist into a dour, cruel old man. Turns out he just gave up because people stopped attending his movies. He admits that he either refused to or didn't know how to adapt to the new societal tastes, so he essentially stopped being an artist. As a professionally creative person, I'd like to be the first to assert that this is utter bullshit.

Everything I know about creativity screamed out during this revelation, and I found it impossible to believe that a market change led to Méliès settling for a lousy clerking job. He didn't lose a wife or a leg to some great tragedy. No, he just quit and allowed his films to be melted down into shoe heels.

From a story standpoint, this a major problem. Today in America, we do war standing on our heads. For a film aimed at children, Hugo does a lousy job of painting a picture of a society so devastated by conflict that it would turn its back on escapism; hell, escapism is all that keeps us afloat right now. Instead of Kingsley slinging some crap voiceover while archival footage of dirty soldiers marches across the screen, I would much rather have flashed back to Méliès' decision to walk away from his art--if only to see what I would assume was the epic argument between him and his collaborators (not to mention his wife).

With Hugo, Martin Scorsese reaffirms his status as one of history's greatest filmmakers. He can create a sense of time and place like few others. But that time and place have to be interesting and believable--yes, even when dealing with fantasy. Award-worthy set design and a Howard Shore score will only get a director so far. James Cameron ran into this wall on his blue-giants-in-space movie a couple years ago, when innovative technology met regressive storytelling. I'd expected better from Scorsese. But perhaps, like Cameron, he just needed a skeleton on which to drape his expensive, new 3D clothes.

Whatever the case, I can't think of any reason to watch Hugo, beyond the quarter-hour of flashbacks to Méliès' career. As love letters go, it may be printed on the world's finest paper, but the scrawl is illegible and confused. Again, I find myself in the minority, but it seems to me that instead of sitting through a two-hour commercial for A Trip to the Moon, audiences would be better served by seeking out the real thing.

*Law's death scene is less unexpected than it is unexpectedly hilarious. I can just see Scorsese yelling at the actor, "Okay, you're about to be engulfed in flames. Throw your arms up--NOW! Okay, great. What? Oh, now, we'll add the fire in post. You're wrapped for the day."

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