Hugo

We finally made it out to see Hugo (2011) on Sunday. Despite seeing it in a theater with a really crappy sound system, it was still a fun film, though not quite as enjoyable as I’d hoped. (We didn’t see it in 3D, either.)

Based on the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, the story takes place in 1930s Paris. Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a young boy whose father (Jude Law in a brief role) was a watchmaker who also works in a museum. One day the father brings home a mechanical man which has been discarded, and he and Hugo set to repairing it. When Hugo’s father dies in a fire at the museum, Hugo is taken to live in abandoned quarters in the railway station Gare Montparnasse by his uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), a drunk who soon disappears. Hugo continues to wind the clocks in the station while eking out a living and avoiding the Station Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen). He also steals parts to continue repairing the automaton, but is caught by a toy shop proprietor, Georges (Ben Kingsley), who takes from Hugo the notebook about the automaton that Hugo’s father had created.

In his quest to retrieve the notebook, Hugo meets Isabelle (ChloĆ« Grace Moretz), the godchild of Georges and his wife (Helen McCrory), also an orphan. The two become friends, and Hugo learns of Isabelle’s love of books (Christopher Lee plays the owner of a bookshop she frequents) and the fact that her godfather never takes her to the movies, shocking to Hugo as his father’s love of film was something he remembers keenly. The pair set out to repair the automaton, which reveals a surprise about both of their families, and long-held pain that Hugo sets out to fix.

Lavishly directed by Martin Scorsese (who I heard wanted to make a film that children could enjoy), Hugo is an interesting mix of classic and modern filmmaking. Indeed, a historical film director is a significant character in the film, and Hugo takes place in an awkward period between the silent era and the golden age of film (“talkies” and color were already around, but the great films of the late 30s were still in the future), not to mention a period between the wars, before the rise of Nazi Germany would have impacted the life of an orphan boy like Hugo. The film opens with Hugo looking out from one of his many hiding spots on the train station – an enormous and intricate set (though of course one wonders if it’s a set of CGI), followed by an extended single-shot scamper by Hugo through the bowels of the station. It’s the sort of thing whose scope and detail would have been beyond films of the 30s, but the film also has a variety of minor characters – the people who work in and frequent the station – and following the details of their lives as asides to the main story feels very much like the films of the time (or maybe just a little later).

I was a little disappointed that the story was only a little bit fantastic and not more so – I guess I was fooled by the preview scenes of a train careening through the station (inspired by an actual incident at the station). Though the automaton is a marvel by itself, just a rather low-key one. The degree of coincidence in the film is a bit much to swallow, too – that Hugo acquires the automaton, is brought to the train station, and meets Georges and Isabelle is quite a confluence of events. I guess Hugo’s speech to Isabelle about how everyone has a purpose in life is supposed to explain this, but the film doesn’t really sell it.

My dad pointed out that the film is really fixing broken lives, and that’s exactly right; all the film history stuff is just the backdrop against which the story is set. I felt that the film was a little too mechanical in portraying the characters’ breakage, though; Hugo and Georges in particular seem emotionally restrained even in scenes where I expected them to explode. (Ben Kingsley is a terrific actor but I wonder whether he plays Georges too low-key, and what, say, Christopher Lee would have done with the role.) The film does much better in the healing scenes, which I guess is to the good since it forms the climax and denouement of the story.

Overall, an enjoyable film, but not quite what I’d expected it would be, and it didn’t knock my socks off. It reminded me in some ways of The Illusionist (2006), which on the whole I’d say is the better film. But there’s a lot to like about Hugo, especially the craft that went into filming it – it’s gorgeous to look at, and feels fully-realized in its portrayal of period Paris.