Hugo Cabret is a little boy who lives in the walls of a 1930s-era Paris train station. His job is to keep the many clocks of the station in working order, but in his spare time he works on his late father’s pet project, trying to repair a broken automaton. He is constantly getting into scrapes with a toy-shop owner and with the station’s guard, a lame WWI veteran with a mean doberman. Hugo’s work on the automaton leads him into some unusual friendships, including the unexpected relationship with one of the great pioneers of filmaking, George Melies.
This film, directed by Martin Scorsese, is wonderfully cast, with a couple familair faces from the Harry Potter films; Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour acompany other greats like Christopher Lee, Ben Kignsley, and Sacha Baron Cohen. However, the characters portrayed by these talented actors are not very well folded into the storyline of the film, nor do they have any direct connection with the central character. At a climactic moment of the film, Hugo reaches out to these characters, begging them to help him, and all we get from them are blank looks. The exchange leaves the audience wondering about the purpose of those characters if they are not going to be in any way involved in Hugo’s story. This is one of the many frustrations a viewer experiences when watching this film.
The two young actors who play Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and his friend (Chloe Grace Moretz) display a remarkable amount of control in their movement and facial expression. They are clearly talentated young people, but they did not have the raw, clean, candidness of real children. In many ways, Butterfield and Moretz’s mastery of the technical aspect of acting keeps them from seeming childlike. In many cases, their fear, sadness, and excitement feels forced, calculated.
It cannot be denied that the film is asthetically pleasing. But the drive of the plot is profoundly disjointed. The audience is not always sure about the central theme of this picture. Is it about living in a train staion? Is it about clocks? Is it about film? Filmaking? Books? A Father-son relationship? Magic? In trying to be all of these things, the film fails to be any one of them. There is no glue binding the story together. I could understand how the many sub-plots might have worked very well in book form because it’s easier for a reader to follow the linear pattern of several stories simultaneously. But the film audience is rather different. Either the stories must be distincly separate narratives, as in Love Actualy, or they must be completely coherent.
The film also takes its time in answering many questions which tend to nag the viewer and distract from enjoying the film. For example, we know that Hugo is living alone at the station, but it isn’t until you are a good way into the film that we are told how he got there and even longer until we discover why he’s alone. We never learn how his mother died. And we never know how Isabelle’s parents died.
There are some good points to the film. The designers have done an amazing job capturing the look and feel of 1930s Paris. The costumes are superbe. I don’t remember having heard any egregeous grammatical errors, and that’s always a plus. The film also pays tribute to the earliest pioneer of film-making, the great Georges Melies. It is always nice for film-lovers to stroll down memory lane and experience some of those innovative shots again. If this film had been devoted to the history of film from the start, instead of being constantly distracted by the many random floating themes, it could really have been something.