I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed seeing a Martin Scorsese movie. I think my favorite is his feature film, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, starring Ellen Burstyn, the basis for the long-running CBS comedy Alice. His 1974 Alice is realistic, involving and driven by the story of a character worth caring about. That or the underrated New York, New York with Robert DeNiro and Liza Minnelli. I also like The Aviator for the focus on an innovator. There’s craftsmanship in each of his movies, from Taxi Driver to The Departed. I respect Mr. Scorsese as an artist; he is one of Hollywood’s best, fully committed to realizing his larger than life vision on screen. Hugo is no exception.
Though it’s better than his most malevolent films, such as the campy, overrated The Departed, this digital 3D children’s movie for Paramount lacks sufficiently developed characters, plot and theme to pull off an engaging homage to the art of moving pictures told through the story of a child. Hugo is mechanical, trying really hard, too hard, with an overbearing score, broadly drawn characterizations and obvious plot points. With blue-eyed Asa Butterfield as the title character, based on a literary story, Ben Kingsley as a grumpy old man and an intelligent girl as partner in mischief, with a pesky policeman and other assorted types in a 1930s Paris train station, the orphan Hugo lives inside the walls fixing clocks, automatons and basically anything with working parts. What works about the story is its sense of conviction about everything, including people, having to have a purpose or sense of purpose. The girl Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) is an instant friend, grasping that it’s OK for boys to cry and ready to indulge in a boy’s adventure with abandon. Together, they chart a course in mapping a mystery that ultimately unfolds and overwhelms them.
What doesn’t work about the story is an overwhelming theme about what it means to create classic moving parts and pictures; the movie is beautifully rendered but achieved at the expense of the children, and Hugo‘s absurdist humor (the actor that played Borat appears as the villain), plodding pace and nonstop music dull the senses and kill any sense of conflict. Despite technically proficient, even thrilling, scenes, such as Hugo attempting a wintry escape from capture, I did not believe the action in this movie was really happening. Hugo is a tale well told but it’s told within a self-consciously developed construct through a purely pictorial fantasy. So it never feels real, let alone emotionally powerful. Though part of the problem is that my 3D glasses weren’t working (apparently, the battery died during the two-hour movie, reminding me why I can’t stand 3D) and the result distorted the picture, Hugo sets itself so strictly upon an idea that it leaves its stock character type, the street urchin, without the necessary requisites for caring about his outcome. The parts are all there, and especially midway through the film, the parts move, often in sequence and syncopation. But Hugo is a movie more about what moves movies than it is a story about a boy, or about the boy within the man, which makes it less than moving.