I feel somewhat churlish saying this, and fear that I might be labelledd a curmudgeonly reviewer who is contrary for the sake of it. Especially after my review of another movie everyone seems to love, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Because now here I am, trashing an even more acclaimed holiday flick. But I have to say it: Hugo, Martin Scorsese‘s much-ballyhooed venture into 3D family fun, is not a good movie.
It’s not awful, though. Hugo is beautiful to look at (well, with the exception of the face of lead actor Asa Butterfield, whose adorableness triggered some kind of primitive wanting-to-punch-his-face-in reflex in me) but empty and without a story that is in the least compelling. I should’ve taken my nephew – we saw Hugo at a Winnipeg megaplex over the holidays – to see Tintin instead; as creepy and Tilda Swinton-ish as the title character looks, at least the movie might have a pulse.
The basic problem with Hugo is that it’s boring. There’s no real story there; all the situations seem and relationships are completely contrived. This is particularly true of the relationship on which the movie hangs, that between Butterfield’s orphaned moppet and Ben Kingsley‘s shop owner. Even after Kingsley’s character and back-story are revealed, nothing we are told justifies the over-the-top hostility he shows towards Hugo in the opening scenes.
Sasha Baron Cohen as the train station agent (Hugo lives in a train station in a 1930s Paris populated by nothing but English speakers with British accents) is comic relief with nothing funny to do. The plot, such as it is, offers no real threat or conflict; Hugo is either trying to avoid detection by Cohen or find a key to the automaton his father (Jude Law) left behind. This is the kind of movie that gives us dozens of shots of an angry dog as though that will be enough to provide suspense.
Hugo has not one memorable line or scene – even when the kid is dangling from the hand of a clock in a supposed life-or-death scene, we are aware the image is cribbed from a Harold Lloyd movie (the Lloyd scene is referenced when Hugo and his friend, played by Chloe Moretz, sneak into a cinema). The movie, which has a running length of over two hours, is also too long by at least 30 minutes.
So why is this movie getting a free pass? I suspect for two reasons: one, it’s Scorsese who, in an age of Ratner and Ritchie, can do no wrong in critics’ eyes. Second, because Hugo, as mentioned, looks beautiful and is also a salute to cinema magic, which never fails to ignite critics’ nostalgia for the good old days. The cinema magic invoked specifically are the films of pioneering moviemaker Georges Mélies. In a montage towards the end, we see examples of the kind of magic that Melies was capable of over a century ago, and all of them look more magical than anything in the claptrap we’ve just seen.