At a glance, Hugo (2011) looks like a promising, magical tale. Call me a curmudgeon, but I found it 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 felt 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.
My reaction was similar to yours, although perhaps not as intense. I thought there were two places where the 3D was put to good use: first in the scene when the child visits Méliès’ glass-enclosed stage, and we get to see the camera shooting through an aquarium to simulate an underwater scene. The more interesting use of 3D came at the end, when Scorsese added a 3D effect to the montage of clips from Méliès’ own films. Even though it’s not historically accurate, I liked the way it was used to recreate the novelty that Méliès’ films must have had for viewers at the time. The references to early viewers’ reactions to film of an oncoming train make this a movie where 3D is actually thematically relevant, rather than just eye candy.
Oh, that’s a very interesting point about the oncoming train footage — didn’t even occur to me! I think by then I was suffering from a case of Hugo-fatigue, unfortunately.
I thought the snow at the very beginning was effective in making me feel like I was part of the story, but for the most part, I find 3D distracting. When I notice it, it immediately breaks the fourth wall for me and feels like a gimmick. (In this movie, the sections with the dog’s face were particularly egregious.)
However, I absolutely loved the few moments of looking through the aquarium at the theater set — that was magical.
I swore off 3-D after HPDH2. I’ll catch Hugo on HBO. Thanks for the great review, Chris!