Smell of Popcorn

film reviews & musings by Max Lalanne

Review of Hugo (2011)

Posted by Max Lalanne on April 23, 2012

Fair warning: This review may contain slight (and, honestly, unimportant) spoilers for those who haven’t seen the film in question. Now keep on reading.

There’s actually a prominent scene well into Hugo (2011) where two children are excitedly poring over a book about the earliest days of cinema. Totally and admirably engrossed, the duo read out names and gaze upon photos from classics such as the Lumiére brothers’ Arrival of a Train at the Station and Workers Leaving the Lumiére Factory to George Méliès’ A Voyage to the Moon and many more in between. And we actually see these films come to life in front of our eyes, allowing us to experience the newfound wonder and awe these kids feel watching the movies.

How can someone like me, a self-professed cinephile who has a deep passion for anything cinema, not appreciate any of the wonderful intentions that director Martin Scorsese has built Hugo around? This 1930s-set fantasy has been hyped as a children’s film; in reality it’s a lovingly constructed, fantastically detailed ode to Méliès and other filmmakers of his era that’s been wrapped in another sweet, fanciful yet slightly overdone film that sounds much more appealing to families and, probably, to studio heads too.

I have to mention, Hugo is an oftentimes breathtakingly beautiful film, there’s no denying that. Telling the story of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a young orphan boy living in a train station trying to fix a broken automaton (that will eventually lead him to Méliès’ path), the film opens with a single unbroken shot of a Paris skyline and zooms into the Gare Montparnasse, all the way until we see a boy staring into the camera from inside a giant clock. With plenty of help from the gorgeous contributions of cinematography Bob Richardson and production designer Dante Feretti – both of which won Oscars for this film – you are drawn into this fabulously rich visual world which must have looked damn good in 3D on the big screen.

When we first see Méliès – trust me, Hugo is a film about the guy, so we can jump right to him – he’s a grouchy and bitter old man played by Ben Kingsley, who runs a toy shop in the station and who catches Hugo stealing from him. Years of financial decrepitude and the fact that after the Great War, no one wanted to see his films anymore (or now can, actually, since the negatives probably don’t exist anymore), has made him unwilling to remember his filmmaking days and makes him even angrier when the inquisitive Hugo, along with his own book-loving niece Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) stirs up some memories.

You don’t have to be a film fanatic who knows Méliès’ movies or the lavish history of cinema to appreciate Hugo. In fact, that’s probably how Scorsese wanted you to experience this film and Méliès’ too, with an air of somewhat unparalleled naiveté and gloriously fragile innocence like Hugo and Isabelle on the screen in front of us. What I would have preferred, though, was if this film was more straight to the point in delivering Scorsese’s message and love for films, because all that extra whimsical “magic” added on doesn’t hold anything on the real magic that this film tells us to celebrate.

My rating: 3 1/2 Stars (Out of 5)

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