Martin Scorsese’s first foray into 3D and children’s cinema has produced a mixed bag of a film that will leave you equal parts charmed, touched, disappointed and surprised.
I have always associated the name “Hugo” with the unexpected. At my primary school a boy of that name, as naked as a newborn baby, burst into the classroom one day to ask the teacher if we were required to wear pants for PE. I haven’t encountered a Hugo since with sufficient charisma to banish that hilarious and utterly strange memory. And Scorsese’s Hugo doesn’t quite manage it either, despite some magical moments.
For me these whiffs of cinematic fairy dust can be found mostly at the beginning of the film. Scorsese introduces us to the world of Parisian orphan Hugo Cabret, who maintains the clocks clandestinely at a train station all by himself, in startling, unforgettable fashion. At first we hover over a sparkly skyline with the Eiffel Tower at its heart, descending gently through marvellously lifelike 3D snowflakes. Then the camera plunges dramatically towards the station that is Hugo’s home, zooming along the tracks and in between the vivid crowds. This shot has incredible depth and uses 3D, as well as traditional set design, to astonishing effect. All our senses feel completely immersed and submerged in the setting of Scorsese’s story.
Unfortunately Hugo’s Achilles heel is its overwhelming lack of a story. The whole movie looks and feels fantastic and there are some exciting set pieces that make excellent use of the spot on period detail. But Hugo is all setup and no payoff. Scorsese sets the scene so perfectly in the opening shots that he needn’t delay steaming on towards the meat of the plot. By the end it becomes clear that the story is nothing but the framework for a lecture and certain sections of the audience, particularly children after a gripping seasonal tale, might well feel cheated.
Scorsese’s lecture is about the worth and wonder of early cinema. There are all the elements of normal children’s films to begin with, including Sacha Baron Cohen’s bumbling slapstick as the station inspector, but then there is a sudden and random transition to the history of the movies. The shift is executed via some sledgehammer dialogue, totally lacking in subtlety or relevance to the back story. The mystery of the clockwork mannequin left behind by Hugo’s dead father (Jude Law) is connected to the movies and is, at least initially, rather flimsy and uninspiring.
However Hugo ultimately delivers an innocent, personal journey not on offer to children elsewhere. It may be disjointed but great performances from the young leads, coupled with Scorsese’s skill and passion for cinema tackling truths of the human condition like purpose and loneliness, makes this lecture more moving and awe inspiring than anything on offer on campus.
My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars