There are two intertwined stories in Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s inaugural foray into family-friendly cinema. The first — and less interesting — story is about an orphaned boy who lives in a Paris railway station in the 1930s, looking after the station’s clocks and eluding the station inspector at every turn. The second — and far more compelling — story revolves around the French cinema pioneer, Georges Méliès, living in broken-hearted obscurity and running a toy concession at that same railway station, and how he finds himself rediscovered and redeemed by a young film scholar (with the aid of the above orphan). Whenever the focus of Hugo is on Méliès, Scorsese finds his footing, the source of his passion for this material, namely the magic, heritage and history of early cinema. The Méliès story gives Scorsese an expansive avenue to wax lyrical on his affection for the magic of movies, to share with his audience his own captivation with the medium. In that sense, Hugo may be the most soulful, most personal fiction film in his career.
What links the young boy, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) to Méliès (played with world-class gusto by Ben Kingsley) is a broken-down mechanical toy — an automaton — that the filmmaker had fashioned decades earlier and gave away to collect dust in a museum. Hugo now tends to the automaton at the station, determined to carry on his late father’s wishes to repair and rebuild it. As Hugo and Méliès strike a bond with each other, the resurrection of the automaton is but one of many of the film’s resurrections: Méliès’ of course along with Hugo’s resurrection from aimless, fatherless oblivion into a future filled with purpose and the film world’s own resurrection of its own heritage.
Where Scorsese stumbles is in telling Hugo’s story, which finds the director flat-footed and at a loss to capture the pace, wit and energy of a children’s fantasy film. Scorsese has always been more at home in studies of behavior, mood and milieu. As a result, performances from child actors Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz — who plays Isabelle, Méliès’ goddaughter and Hugo’s spunky sidekick — have a charmless, obligatory feel about them. These are one-note performances as is a similarly troublesome turn by Sacha Baron Cohen, playing the station inspector as a queasy mishmash of Borat and Inspector Clouseau. While Cohen and Emily Mortimer, as flower vendor Lisette, have a couple of cute and amusing scenes, Cohen’s schtick never coheres into a fully realized character and in sync with this material.
Fortunately for Hugo, Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker keep Cohen’s scenes tolerably trimmed. The filmmakers aren’t quite as shrewd with the children’s scenes, which often feel protracted and not half as interesting as Scorsese believes they are. Scenes between Hugo and Isabelle benefit from Hugo’s unsparing attention to period detail, but the direction belabors each and every dramatic beat with little regard for pacing, freshness and energy. This is one of the shortfalls in Scorsese’s approach to his material: He has never been much of a storyteller so much as an uncanny capturer of moments and details. While his gifts serve biographies and crime sagas admirably, they become hindrances to the needs of this genre, this material.
But when the movie lands in Kingsley’s hands, Hugo becomes a thing of beauty and profoundness. Méliès allows Scorsese to transport himself and his audience to the halcyon days of the film pioneer’s career, when he perfected early special-effects techniques via hundreds of fantasy and adventure short films. Hugo hits its stride (and Scorsese finds his groove) when it ventures into Méliès’ biography — sequences bursting with visual splendor and emotional beauty. When a young film scholar, Rene Tabard (played delightfully by Michael Stuhlberg), chances on Hugo and Isabelle as they thumb through pages of his film-history tome, we feel that Scorsese has found filmic extensions of his cinema-love in both Hugo, the fledgling cinephile, and Tabard, the seasoned film enthusiast, through whom the director can give voice to the issue of film preservation (the lack of which destroyed much of Méliès’ cinematic output). When Scorsese finds opportunities to lavish attention on Méliès and on early film history, Hugo becomes something special, it finds its purpose in the world, right along with its own characters.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: John Logan
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Michael Stuhlbarg, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Jude Law, Richard Griffiths, Helen McCory