I unfortunately missed Hugo in the theatres but finally got around to watching the film last night. I had ordered the DVD when it first came out and it has sat on my shelf ever since. The film has everything I like in a movie, great sets, good actors, an amazing director, an interesting premise, but for some reason my interest wasn’t peaked, so on my shelf it sat.
First off, I really wanted to like Hugo and I kind of did. I have nothing but admiration for Martin Scorsese. The film looked great with its lavish sets and clocklike precision but I couldn’t figure out who the intended audience for this movie was. It is meant to be Scorsese’s first children’s movie but it never feels comfortable in those shoes. It had all the appropriate kid-like elements: an orphan boy trying to reconnect with his past, a mysterious automaton that may hold the key, a key, cartoonish villains and mild menace and peril. All these things felt like a frame that surrounded the real picture; the heart of this film is the birth of cinema and recognizing one of its earliest pioneers – Georges Méliès played by Sir Ben Kingsley.
Georges Méliès started his career as a magician and then eventually turned his skills to movie magic. Martin Scorsese uses Hugo to write a wonderful love letter to this man and his importance to film history. As an audience we get a glimpse into his working methods and innovations. These scenes brim with both whimsy and wonder. The greatest parts of the entire movie for me are the actual clips from Méliès’ films. I have seen many poor transfers and pixelated versions online and the difference in quality is jaw-dropping.
Scorsese’s love letter doesn’t just stop at George; we get to see Harold Lloyd climbing a 12 story building in Safety Last. Legend has it Lloyd was actually on the side of a building in downtown Los Angeles with only a mattress on a make shift platform below him to catch his fall. There are also clips from The Great Train Robbery and The General starring the magnificent Buster Keaton. Legend has it that Keaton’s director informed his cameraman to keep rolling no matter what, until Buster yelled cut or was killed – whichever came first. Scorsese even goes so far as to reenact the audience’s reaction to the Lumière Brothers first showing of a train arriving at a station. This becomes an inside joke later on in the film as another train comes off the screen with a little help of 3D technology.
The aesthetic elements of the film are like eye candy. The colour blue is a motif carried throughout the film. It tints every scene from Hugo’s eyes to the inspector’s uniform. Scorsese uses it masterfully with the ease of Picasso. Dust hangs in the air like tiny sun drenched particles, reminding the audience of moments past. The Parisian landscape is a wondrous sight.
Paris was the birthplace of cinema, so it is the appropriate backdrop for Hugo to take place in, but the film never feels French. All the actors speak with English accents. This fact took me out of the story and reminded me of how manufactured big budget films are. Every detail is meticulously considered and when a detail is off the overall feeling can be off-putting.
In the end, I think Hugo feels like a good movie that could have been great.