APRIL 5, 2013 SCREENING: HUGO (2011)
I don’t even think it was intentional, but my screening of “Hugo” (2011) marked the third of three films in a row where child stars started making the transition to older roles. Hugo is last – but certainly not least – of the three films. Indeed, I would argue that Hugo is the best of the three, but given that the other two were disappointments, that’s not saying much. Hugo is a really well made and innovative film, but I don’t think its deserves much of the critically acclaimed “masterpiece” labeling that it got when it came out. Good film, yes. Classic, no.
Let’s first take a look at what the film did right. Without question, the art direction of the film is its strongest element. This film blew me away with its cinematography and set design. It’s perfectly done – you could randomly freeze frame “Hugo” at at any random moment and you’d have a beautifully rendered still image that you could mount on the wall like a scenic painting. Supposedly Hugo is one of those movies where you “must” watch it in 3D. Well, I didn’t do so – I watched the move in nice old fashioned 2D on a plain, small. flat screen TV – and it was still gorgeous. I don’t know what film won for Best Art Direction at the Oscars that year, or even what other movies were nominated, but in my mind Hugo was the only contender. I haven’t seen a movie in years that looked so beautiful.
Hugo is also a refreshing change of pace for director Martin Scorsese. Although an iconic director, most of Scorsese’s films are about as R-rated as you can get, and filled with extreme violence and adult situations (mob movies are a specialty of his). Lately, Scorsese has also gotten strangely attached to Leonardo DiCaprio as Tim Burton has with Johnny Depp, and it’s really starting to overstay its welcome. Hugo, on the other hand, seemed to be marketed at kids – or at least it clearly falls into the category of “Family Film” – and best of all, Leonardo DiCaprio sat this one out. Instead, the cast includes Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, and child actors Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz. Butterfield went on to Ender’s Game, so this apparently marked his final child role, and he went out with a bang. Incredibly, Moretz did this glossy high budget film the same year she did the last movie I reviewed, Hick. In the latter, she played a fowl-mouthed, flirty southern girl who dressed too sexy for her age. Here, she’s a sweet and charming polite french child. The contrast between the two roles could not be more striking. Kudos to the actors for such a strong performance.
What I found lacking was the rest of the movie. It seems to be marketed as some kind of grand adventure film or fantasy story about clocks, set against the backdrop of the 1930s Paris. Instead, it turns to be some quiet drama that turns into a preachy lesson about film preservation The film ultimately reveals that the main character’s grandfather is forgotten silent film director Georges Méliès of “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) fame, and ends with some fictional (as in, this didn’t happen in real life) emotional farewell where his films are restored and he receives a standing ovation for his work.
I’m not sure what the audience for this film is. If it’s a kids movie, I doubt kids will care about the storyline or be engaged in the movie at all. For someone like me – who is a big fan of the actors, loves cool special effects, and is actually interested in the niche art-house subject of silent film preservation – Scorsese might have the ideal targeted viewer. But my reaction was lukewarm at best. Sacha Baron Cohen is apparently there as “comic relief” playing a french police officer, but I didn’t laugh once, despite his strong performance. The Georges Méliès revelation didn’t move me either – and I found myself more fascinated by how awesome his 100 year old movies looked when they were fully colorized and restored for brief exerts in this movie, than the surrounding story about the director himself. Perhaps the most distracting element is the fact this is a big budget Hollywood film. Like Les Miserables and many others, the audience is supposed to be escape to the world of historic France, but its difficult to imagine France when every character in the movie speaks with a heavily British accent for the benefit of the English-speaking audience. As an experiment, I actually got tired of hearing the fake British accents and switched the French language dubbing halfway through the movie. I kept it on for the next hour and it actually improved the movie – now Hugo seemed like a charming foreign film instead of a Scorsese movie, and even Cohen’s police office character seemed more believable instead of like Borat wandered unto a new film set.
Overall, Hugo is a well made and incredibly polished film. But who’s film is it? It’s not mine, and I doubt its yours, either.
** ½ out of ****