Hugo, for those unfamiliar, is the latest work from acclaimed director Martin Scorsese. Although the film is live action, it subscribes to that Pixar philosophy of being a children’s movie which adults can fully enjoy. This is, in many ways, quite a departure for the director of such films as Raging Bull and The Departed, but it should come as no surprise that an excellent director can make a good movie regardless of his subject matter or intended audience. And Hugo, despite a few rather aggravating annoyances, is quite a good movie.
The film’s central character is the titular Hugo Cabret, a boy who manages the massive, interconnected system of clocks within a Paris train station in the interwar period of the early 20th century. He lives alone (for reasons I won’t spoil), stealing food, winding the clocks, and avoiding the station police inspector. From his passageways inside the walls of the station, Hugo watches many of the people who work in the station.
The first few minutes of the film set this up as the principle source of action alongside Hugo’s own little adventures: Hugo seeing the interactions of others at the station, little stories to themselves. And the film might have been brilliant if it had stuck to that structure, with the audience following Hugo as the catalyst for all action, whether he participates directly or not. But the film, despite its title, fails to hold a main character. At its conclusion, there is no one the audience can truly say the film has been “about,” because at different times it is unquestioningly about different characters and their stories. Indeed, it concludes with the audience seeing through the eyes of Hugo’s friend Isabelle. It is she who has the final word, speaking according to her experience, rather than Hugo to his.
The broken focus feels very intentional. It seems the intention was to view Hugo’s world through a compound eye, to examine the pieces of a mosaic separately in their relation to the whole. I appreciate the attempt, but it didn’t work for me. As I said, I think I would have bought it if each separate story was seen through the unifying lens of Hugo. Or perhaps if the opening of the film had not instructed me as a member of the audience to view Hugo as the main character I would have been content to see the events from a variety of perspectives. But the repeated shifts in focus, which blatantly instruct the audience to view a character and his part of the story as the story, are frustrating, and for me removed much of the weight of significance in each narrative.
Related to all of this was the sheer number of characters the film strove to develop. Certainly, there are tiers (one containing Hugo, Isabelle, Georges Melies, the old toy shop keeper played by Ben Kingsley, and the Station Inspector Gustaf played by Sacha Baron Cohen, and another containing the rest of the cast), but even the secondary characters are fully realized, with distinctive personalities for most of them. In one sense this is a triumph; even characters with little screen time feel fully embodied, as though they really do have their own, full lives which we only see a part of. This is helped, of course, by an excellent supporting cast which includes Jude Law and Christopher Lee. But in another sense, this only contributes to the ADD of the main story. There’s too much pleasure taken in these minor characters. They demand too much of the audience’s attention.
At least, however, everything that demands attention (characters and otherwise) is lovingly imagined and gorgeously rendered. Hugo is nothing if not playful, and joyfully so. From the characters to the fantastic clockwork inventions to the flashback segments of old films and film sets, Hugo toes the line just beyond true realism with poise. This extends to the visual style of the film. Everything filling the sets is just a little bit exaggerated. On screen, colors are brightly rendered, and the measured use of light and shadow contribute wonderfully to the feeling that this world is similar to ours, or at least our historical world, but just the slightest bit alien and prone to fantasy. Truly fantastic elements only creep into Hugo on rare occasion, but when they do, they are pleasurable and wholly acceptable due to the atmosphere cultivated throughout the film.
Something that ran fairly counter to the film’s atmosphere, on the other hand, were the decidedly British accents exhibited by nearly the entire cast. I imagine this was partially in deference to the young actors who play Hugo and Isabelle, but it makes one wonder why the film is set in Paris. While perhaps lacking the same romantic air, it seems to me that London might have done just as well as Paris as a backdrop for the story. The preponderance of British accents didn’t jive with the setting the film was trying to cultivate, but there was never anything special about the train station being set in France. A setting should contribute to the story, be a part of it to such an extent that one could not imagine the story set elsewhere. The train station certainly fits that description, but Paris very marginally so.
A final note on the plot (without giving away any major spoilers): While the pieces of the story tend to complement each other, there are several points that the story feels forced forward. Rather than being guided organically on by their own impulses, there are a few points where the characters appear to be working from a script. They do quickly assume their character again in this new turn of action, but a slight lack of audience understanding as to quite how they got onto this new track breaks the immersion of the film somewhat. A brief example: the Station Inspector has a fancy for the young woman who runs the flower stand in the station. Now despite the fact that he is a singularly despicable, if pitiable, man, and we see very little romance, she swoons into his arms, and we soon see them together as if they had been for ages. I don’t want to give anything more central to the plot away, but this is the sort of unfulfilling leap that occurs every now and again.
The Verdict: 4 out of 5
Hugo is a very enjoyable film. It is a children’s story, make no mistake, but it carries wide appeal. It is an absolutely gorgeous film to behold, full of personality, imagination, and joy. Although there are some execution issues with elements of the story that hold it back from any lasting greatness, it never breaks the illusion of the film world entirely. It has an excellent cast, and the two youngest actors do a serviceable job in their parts. All told, Hugo is a fine example of magical realism done right, exciting in the viewer a childlike hope for things on the fringes of the possible.