"Dream with me."
Martin Scorsese’s attempt to cash in on the family friendly big-budget 3-D extravaganza trend. The film centers on orphan Hugo, played with a surprising lack of charisma by Asa Butterworth, who keeps the clocks in a Paris train station wound and running accurately, and his quest to repair a broken automaton left him by his late father, stealing necessary bits of clockwork from a toymaker with a small shop in the station who turns out to be none other than the great filmmaker Georges Melies blah blah blah. There are subplots involving Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour, and a very weird performance from Sacha Baron Cohen as the station guard who occasionally brings the film to a halt. The film follows a terribly predictable trajectory until it turns rather jarringly into a lecture on the importance of film history and preservation, believe it or not, and just when you’ve gotten used to the sudden shift in the story it shifts back into Big Event Movie mode with an entirely predictable and deeply silly Big Action Scene that serves no purpose other than allowing Scorsese to cram in references to Hitchcock, M.C. Esher, and Harold Lloyd before going for a big ode to the magic of cinema and family friendly tear-jerker ending.
There’s some cool stuff, to be fair, especially some marvelous recreations of Melies’ style of filmmaking, with its outlandish painted sets, crazy costumes, dancing girls and overt theatricality. But it left me very very cold indeed. Like Del Toro’s outlandishly overpraised PAN’S LABYRINTH, it expects me to take more of an interest in the problems of its juvenile hero without ever going to the trouble of making me give a flying goddamn about the little wretch in question, and that's entirely the blame of Mr. Butterworth and ultimately Mr. Scorsese himself. Maybe a better child actor could have made him more interesting. If only the film had been made with a Freddie Highmore, Jamie Bell, or a Haley Joel Osment.
Well-intentioned, and I guess if it leads people to seek out the glorious work of the great Melies, well, it won’t have been an entire waste of time and money. And I'm thinking that Melies is himself a key to the film's slight successes and more drastic failures. The film never makes me really share the sense of Wonder that it works so strenuously to generate with all the big CGI 3D stuff and invitations to “dream with me.” It requires a different kind of filmmaker to get away with stuff like this, someone better able to tap into the real innocence and sense of wonder associated with childhood while still regaining his adult sensibilities, and I’m sorry to have to say that Martin Scorsese is quite simply no Georges Melies, or even Terry Gilliam any of the latterday followers of the great man. HUGO simply doesn't have enough of the life that animates even the least of the Melies films is wants to desperately to be a tribute to; it is just as mechanical as the big clocks that Hugo tends. There’s a terrific merry energy to Melies’ A TRIP TO THE MOON that Scorsese can’t manage to bring to the screen, settling instead for a sugary sentimentality that will certainly move a lot of people but started to infurate me, at least partly because it has so little to do with the very real magic of the real films created by Georges Melies, who created, among other things, what must be the first depiction of hilariously simulated same-sex analingus in movie history, in a remarkable little short called THE COURTSHIP OF THE SUN AND MOON.
I certainly don’t expect to see such things in a G-rated holiday extravaganza, but I don’t think it is expecting too much to get some of Melies’ sly energy in a film devoted, even if only in part, to his memory.