At a glance, Hugo (2011) looks like a promising, magical tale. Call me a curmudgeon, but I found it kind of sluggish and manipulative. It’s about a young boy named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a lonely soul who lives in the walls and rafters of a Paris train station, where he keeps the clocks running, carrying on a family tradition. But he’s also an orphan, struggling on his own after the death of his father and the disappearance of his uncle, staying one step ahead of a mean-spirited station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). Hugo is attempting to repair an automaton, his last connection to his father. To do so, he steals mechanical parts from a local toy shop owned by a man named Méliès (Ben Kingsley). When Méliès catches him in the act, a testy relationship develops between them, and Hugo starts to unravel the details of Méliès’ myserious past.
Hugo is attractively made, to be sure, lavishly produced and visually inventive. I was particularly fond of the film footage from the dawn of the medium, cleverly re-created. That said, we saw it in 3D, and while the effects are better deployed here than in other 3D movies I’ve seen, I’m not a fan of the technology — it doesn’t enhances the story-telling at all, and I found it more distracting than immersive, basically a perpetual reminder that I was watching a movie. Unless there’s some sort of quantum leap in 3D film tech, I’m pretty much done with it.
For all the eyeball kicks, I really had to work to stay engaged in this one. The pace fluctuates between slow and glacial, the dialogue is pro forma, and the characters felt hollow to me — the shining exception being Isabelle, played with infectious charm and enthusiasm by Chloë Grace Moretz. But, crucially, I didn’t really care for Hugo, whose story weirdly becomes secondary to Méliès’ late in the film, a plot shift I found clunky and jarring. If anything, the mechanical, focus-shifting plot of Hugo turned me off the most — it felt like it was trying to be several movies at once, all of them partially executed (a boy’s quest to fix something, an old man coming to grips with a lost past, and several diversionary B stories). In the end, I came away feeling poked and prodded by sentiment.
From time to time, the film kicked up an image or a moment I appreciated, and I certainly didn’t hate watching it. But the journey was highly uneven for me, and not nearly as magical as its flashy visuals and emotional soundtrack wanted me to believe.