Alright, everyone, get ready for some bile. I’m going to try to keep my ranting to a minimum, but I straight up hated this movie. And I’m not saying “That was okay, but it definitely didn’t deserve 11 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.” No. Nominations aside, I hated this movie. I almost walked out. Okay, let’s get into it.
Hugo is the story of a young boy, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the Gare du Nord train station in Paris. After his clockmaker father died in a fire, Hugo moved into the train station with is neglectful uncle, who was responsible for keeping all of the station clocks running. When his uncle died, Hugo didn’t tell anyone, but continued to live inside the walls of the station, repairing the clocks in secret. He is continuously working to repair an automaton given to him by his father, using parts stolen from a curmudgeonly toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley) Hugo believes that once repaired, the mechanical man will somehow deliver a message from his father, but instead (spoiler alert) it delivers the first in a series of clues that ultimately lead him to discover that the shop owner is none other than silent film and special effects pioneer Georges Méliès. Hugo is assisted in his “adventure” by Méliès’ peppy and irritating goddaughter, played by Chloë Grace Moretz.
Let’s itemize just some of the things that are wrong with this movie:
1. There is no conflict, and no urgency.
The stakes in this movie are so low as to be nonexistent. Literally, two-thirds of the way through the movie, I was still waiting for the plot to kick in, and it never came. Ultimately, the central conflict of the movie is trying to convince Méliès to acknowledge his past and return to cinema. (Méliès became so depressed after the start of World War I when people stopped fawning over his surrealist films and grew more concerned with, oh, World War I, among other things. So he became a bitter old man who torments children. Good riddance.) The final resolution is a screening of some of Méliès’ films, which utterly failed as a satisfying denouement. (Incidentally, denouement becomes largely unnecessary when there is no climax to come down from.) I frequently found myself thinking, “I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care.”
“But there must be a villain,” you say? Oh, there is, of the weakest possible variety. Sacha Baron Cohen, clearly looking to reignite his edgy career, portrays a station inspector, who, as a result of latent bitterness from being an orphan himself, gets his kicks by catching orphans in the train station and sending them off to an orphanage. This plot is never really explored any further than that, but it does lead to some ridiculous and unentertaining chase scenes where Cohen, limping with his creaky metal leg brace (nothing funnier than running with a limp!) chases Hugo through the station. During the supposed “climax” of the film, Hugo is briefly caught and imprisoned in a cage, but he easily picks the lock and continues on his merry way. I’ve heard Cohen’s performance compared favorably to Peter Sellers, but to me he seemed much more like an unfunny Benny Hill. (These scenes, and much of the rest of the movie, were so rife with cinematic cliches that were impossible to overlook. Granted, Scorsese could defend these choices by claimed they were meant to be a tribute to the hundreds of films in which they appeared previously, but I still found them a distracting detriment.)
2. The dialogue is terrible.
It’s hard to know whether the blame here should go to the script or the acting, but there seems to be enough to go around. Given that there is no conflict to speak of, Scorcese leaves it to the script to tell the audience why they should care about the action going on onscreen. We are constantly being subjected to lines like “What an exciting adventure!” and “We could get caught!” being shoved down our throats.
Additionally, and I know it’s unfashionable to criticize child actors, but Chloë Grace Moretz is abysmal. Her delivery is something out of a middle school play, as though she’s hoping to catch sight of her over-supportive parents filming her from the front row. Her British accent is unforgivable (I know it’s unfair to expect a child to successfully deliver an accent for an entire movie, but how hard is it to hire an actual British girl?), and she plays like Hermione Granger’s much more obnoxious cousin.
No one else in the movie is quite as bad as Moretz (and it is only by comparison that Butterfield’s Hugo is tolerable), but there was no one that I felt excelled. Even actors who I typically love (Ben Kingsley) were overacting cartoons.
3. Tell me Martin Scorsese, how do you feel about film preservation?
It’s no secret that historic film preservation is Martin Scorsese’s pet passion, and much of this film seems like a PSA for the cause. In general I think it’s wonderful when directors make movies about causes or subjects that excite them, but they have to remember that the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily share their fetish, and we require some semblance of a story to keep us interested. I think it’s no secret that the reason this received so much recognition from the Academy and from film critics is because it preaches to the choir. The film promotes the institution of cinema as a divine practice, but utterly fails to deliver in that tradition itself. This movie is made for people that put cinema not simply on a pedestal, but on an altar, even going so far as to assert that movies are what make our dreams. I love film, but this was a tough pill for me to swallow.
4. The visual effects are not enough to redeem it, and aren’t as amazing as everyone says.
Yes, everyone is wetting themselves over the effects in this movie, and yes, many moments of the film are beautiful to watch (the automaton is pretty great). Much of the movie, in fact, takes place inside giant clocks, and the spinning gears and swinging pendulum were definitely well executed. However, I have a difficult time getting too excited about seeing the inside of a clock, when this seems like an incredibly overused motif in films.
There were a few redeeming elements of this movie, but they far from saved it. It was academically interesting to see the flashbacks to Méliès’ film studio, and to see how some of his iconic films were produced. As someone who had seen clips of his most famous films before, but knew little about the background to them or their creator, it was interesting to see behind the curtain in this respect. Of course, I have no way of knowing the accuracy of these scenes, but I assume that Martin Scorsese did his homework. In the end, I think I would have just seen a documentary about the topic, rather than try to pick the few interesting historical tidbits out of the weak and poorly executed story.