Hugo (Paramount Pictures, PG)

hugo 75On the way out of the theater, I was actually stomping around, muttering to myself about how frustratingly, terminally boring the damned thing was.

 

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Hugo seems like a movie I should like: It’s directed by one of our most important and well-respected directors; it is steeped in cinema history and, by and large, gets it right; it’s based on a book that I’ve been told is wonderful (but have never actually read); and, overall, it feels like a celebration of the movies themselves. Instead, it’s dull to the point that it made me angry. On the way out of the theater, I was actually stomping around, muttering to myself about how frustratingly, terminally boring the damned thing was.

The important and well-respected director in question, Martin Scorsese (here making his first 3-D film; that’s one road he shouldn’t’ve gone down), seems to have kicked into Steven Spielberg mode, as Hugo is being billed as big-time family entertainment just in time for the holidays: a film that will charm audiences, makes huge piles of money, and maybe win some Oscars in the process—that’s kind of Spielberg’s shtick a lot of the time. Or maybe my brain just wants to make that comparison because of a (mostly surface) resemblance to Spielberg’s 2001 film A.I. Both it and Hugo feature Jude Law and a human-modeled robot (here they call them “automatons’” in a similarly toned movie.

But Hugo is set in something closer to reality than A.I.; specifically, we’re in 1930s Paris (a Paris where everyone speaks in British-accented English, I might add) in a train station, unraveling the mystery of what happened to one of the earliest and most important pioneers of film, Georges Méliès, the guy who directed A Trip to the Moon in 1902. Our main character, young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), lives in the station, winding all of its clocks for a living after his father dies and his alcoholic uncle abandons him with his old job. On the loose in the station is a doofy station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Borat) who is infatuated with catching stray children and sending them to the orphanage. Another obstacle to Hugo’s happiness is a cranky old man (Ben Kingsley) who runs a toy store in the station. After an encounter wherein the toy store owner confiscates a book of instructions written by Hugo’s deceased father on how to repair an automaton he left behind, Hugo meets Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz of (500) Days of Summer and Kick-Ass fame), a young relative of the toy store owner’s, and together they discover that he is actually the now-mostly forgotten Méliès.

Scorsese has some fun with having an excuse to show clips from silent classics such as The General or Intolerance or countless Méliès shorts, and from time to time he uses the 3-D format to add some panache to Scorsesianly complicated tracking/crane shots, but that’s about the best you’re going to get out of this movie. The characters are grating, the situations unbelievable, the parallels broad and obvious: David Copperfield here (Isabelle professes to love him early in the film), Safety Last! clock-hanging there. Emily Mortimer, one of my favorite underused actresses, pops up in a completely disposable role as a love interest for the station inspector, and the costume designers dress her up to look like she’s instead supposed to be a love interest for Wallace of Wallace & Gromit. While they get some of the sadder facts of Méliès’ history correct (such as the fact that most of his films were lost forever when they were melted down to make boots from during the First World War), but they play the revising history card and give him the happy ending he didn’t receive in real life.

Part of me wonders if those who aren’t well-versed in film history will like this film more than I did; maybe it will open new doors for them to check out the great silent filmmakers they’d previously overlooked. But even if that’s the case, there’s no good argument for why one should watch this exercise in mediocrity than just diving right into your Keatons, your Chaplins, your Griffiths, and, yes, your Méliès. | Pete Timmermann

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