Adventure tale filled with wonder
Hugo stars Asa Butterfield (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) as an orphan who lives above a Paris train station in the 1930s. Hugo faithfully keeps every clock running since the death of his father (Jude Law) and the disappearance of his drunken Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone).
The Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) spies the 12-year-old who lifts croissants and toys. There’s nothing the Inspector likes less than orphans disrupting the bustling terminal.
The Inspector and his Dalmatian give chase. In one scene, Hugo dangles from the hand of a huge clock to escape capture.
Like a Charles Dickens novel
Hugo is rich with detail, sound and color. Flywheels, gears and gizmos fill the boy’s world. The maze above the station allures and fascinates.
From the tower, Hugo can see and hear the grown-ups below. He can go almost anywhere. Alone, he gazes out over Paris rooftops and sees the Eiffel Tower.
Automaton needs fixing
Hugo’s heart beats for a steel man called the Automaton. It was his father’s prized possession. If Hugo can find the heart-shaped key to wind it up, the device will spring to life. He’s sure that one last message from his father lies within the gleaming contraption.
Hugo’s adventure really begins when he tries to pinch spare parts from a stern toymaker Pappa Georges (Ben Kingsley). Pappa is so unhappy that you’ll wonder about his secret grief, and want to help. Furious, he seizes Hugo’s precious notebook filled with drawings.
Hugo meets Isabelle
Pappa’s goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz of Diary of a Wimpy Kid) befriends Hugo. Warmth grows as they explore the station and visit a bookshop.
One day they talk about movies. Hugo’s father took him to the cinema every week. Isabelle has never seen a movie, she says. Pappa forbids it.
Ambition is good in movies, as is story and fully realized characters. Just when I began to care about Hugo and Isabelle, the focus shifted. The tone changed from drama to slapstick.
Two films in one
Hugo is really two films. A tale of adversity and hope turns into an homage to the cinema. The boy’s story fades into the background. The movie is still magical, but turns too complex for young children.
Impeccable cinematography by Robert Richardson (Inglourious Basterds; Shutter Island) and fabulous sets from Dante Ferretti (Shutter Island; Gangs of New York) create an intricate world of wonder.
The script by The Aviator’s John Logan is too broad ranging. It’s adapted from Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
Focus and character development suffer
Characters come alive just briefly. A flower girl Lisette (Emily Mortimer) captures the heart of the Inspector. An elderly café patron (Richard Griffiths) woos a woman (Frances de la Tour) with a flighty pet dog. A bookseller Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee) gives Hugo a gift.
Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory) sternly forbids Hugo and Isabelle to speak of Pappa’s past, or to investigate it. This is a clue that his secret must be wonderful indeed.
A film historian (Michael Stuhlbarg of A Serious Man) meets the children. Finally, Pappa Georges and Mama Jeanne can no longer hide the truth.
Vintage silent film scenes
You’ll see anew pioneering films like the Lumiere Brothers’ 1895 short The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Also featured is Georges Melies’ 1902 classic A Trip to the Moon, where a rocket pierces the eye of the Man in the Moon.
CGI is used with whimsy and restraint to enhance these classics. The making of these movies is reenacted. I felt deep appreciation for early films and filmmakers.
Kingsley excellent as toymaker
Kingsley is masterful as brooding, heartbroken Pappa Georges. Moretz is especially engaging as Isabelle. Butterfield seems lost at times but lives up to his resourceful character. Cohen fascinates as the driven, precise and heroic Inspector.
Scorsese promotes film preservation, a cause he deeply cherishes, in the movie’s second half. As important as this effort is, I’m not sure it belongs in Hugo.
I felt startled at one point by a line straight out of a public service announcement: “Time hasn’t been kind to old movies.”
3-D effects have mixed results
While the 3-D effects are lovely, you’ll need to wear those dark glasses to see them. For some, the darker screen diminishes the joy of watching a kids’ film.
For all its spectacle, the film never shakes a mechanical chill. The story steams along and jumps the track. Like the Automaton, Hugo needed a bit more tinkering. (4 out of 5 stars)
Hugo 2011 / PG / 2 hours, 6 min
Cast Overview: Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Helen McCrory, Christopher Lee, Michael Stuhlbarg, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law
Director: Martin Scorsese
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Family, Fantasy