Perhaps the signature achievement of Hugo, the protracted, diffuse, grandiose film of Brian Selznick’s 2007 graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is the seamlessness that filmmaker Martin Scorsese (best director, National Board of Review, Boston critics, Golden Globe) conjures between Ben Kingsley’s (otherwise unconvincing because humorless) Georges Méliès, who looks nothing like the pioneer French filmmaker, and the actual Méliès as he appears in snippets of his own films. Or is that Méliès? Has Scorsese instead reconstructed the Méliès material with Kingsley as its star? Ah, that may be the “magic”—in an otherwise surprisingly unmagical film.
Nothing seems to go right here, including the death by fire of 12-year-old Hugo’s kindly clockmaker-father (Jude Law, briefly wonderful), which is so howlingly unconvincing that one anticipates the character’s return throughout the tedious course of the film. Orphaned, Hugo becomes apprenticed to an alcoholic uncle who oversees the big clock at a spectacular Parisian train station before he vanishes, leaving the boy on his own in 1931. Hugo lives elevated behind the clock, tinkering with the pen-holding automaton that his father had tried to revive; the boy is convinced that if he can get the big toy to work it will convey a message from his father’s spirit, “reuniting” them. Toward this end, Hugo steals parts from a shopkeeper’s toy store down below. The shopkeeper is Méliès, now embittered because all but forgotten—as the film puts it, separated from his life’s purpose. (Unconscionably, Scorsese’s film fails to explain why.*) Méliès’s goddaughter, Isabelle, becomes Hugo’s sole friend and sister adventurer.
Scorsese has said that he made Hugo for his own daughter, and this may be why Isabelle is so much more engaging than dreary Hugo. It is also the case that Chloë Grace Moretz, who plays her, is a more appealing performer than Asa Butterfield, who plays Hugo.
I saw this film the only way I could: without the 3-D.
Best film, National Board of Review.
* Critic Robert Fowler provides this summary: “Scorsese argues that Méliès’ films became dated after the First World War as audiences simply wanted more ‘realism.’ He ignores the harsh fact that Méliès’ film company was forced into bankruptcy in 1913 by the French and American studios; his company was then bought out of receivership by Pathé Frères. The French army seized many of his films, recorded on cellulose, and made boot heels out of them during the imperialist slaughter. Essentially driven out of the film industry, Méliès did become a toy salesman in a train station.”