Hugo Review: Scorsese’s Wind-Up Toy

HUGO (PG): On General Release Friday 2nd December

Hugo is Martin Scorsese’s love letter to cinema, a visually spectacular and vibrant tale set in 1930s Paris.  At first it seems like an odd film for Scorsese to make (this isn’t Goodfellas or Shutter Island) – could it be that he’s made his first family film?  On the surface it seems so, but look closer and you’ll see that Hugo is aimed at either the more thoughtful kind of child or at least grown up children who love cinema.

Hugo Cabret, an orphan, lives in the walls of a Parisian train station.  There he hides from the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) who is determined to round up all waifs and strays.  Hugo has inherited his father’s (Jude Law in a very brief appearance) knack for fixing things and lives behind the huge clock face where he watches the station’s unfolding dramas.

He becomes obsessed with finding the secret to a broken wind-up automaton, the last reminder of his father, and is convinced that in fixing it, it will reveal a long-lost message from beyond the grave.  But what the tin man unlocks isn’t a message from his dad but the movies of the great early filmmaker George Mellies (a wonderful Ben Kingsley) and together with his tomboyish friend Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), he sets out to unravel the key to the beginnings of cinema.

Many people baulked when they heard Scorsese was going to make a 3D movie, viewing it as flash-in-the-pan novelty that didn’t dignify usage by one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers but here it’s used effectively.  Hugo peers out from layers of clockwork and Scorsese executes some lovely sweeping tracking shots which zip through between crowds of people and between ticking mechanisms seamlessly.  The set and costume design is also beautiful – gleaming brass clockwork, studded brown leather and gouts of gushing steam.

Scorsese’s intent is clear from the outset – it’s almost of visual essay on the power of dreams and imagination and an overflowing love for the magic of cinema; that overawed delight of a good film.

Sadly, though well intentioned, the execution doesn’t quite have the resonance it should.  The story feels oddly familiar and it’s easy to second guess its rather underdeveloped characters, even down to their next lines.  Sacha Baron Cohen’s Child Catcher also misfires; a lame subplot has him pursuing love and theatrically falling over; homage to the more prevalent physical comedy of the cinema age perhaps but still criminally unfunny.

It’s also hard to imagine who it’s aimed at.  It’s far too long (120 minutes) and intellectually dense for children who will likely be bored by its forays into cinema’s early history but too simplistic and lacking in any real peril to keep adults suitably transfixed.

As celebration of a celebration of why cinema is great and the power it has to tell stories, Hugo succeeds magnificently; as simple entertainment it’s slightly left of the mark.

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