Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Movie Review: Hugo

One of the big surprises for me when we went to see Tintin was the trailer for Hugo. Surprise mainly for one simple fact - Martin Scorsese made a kids movie?? in 3-D??? WHAT? I love Scorsese, as a working director today only Steven Spielberg comes close in my estimation for the breadth of talent on display, and since Gangs of New York he's felt liberated from the need to make an Oscar-winning magnum opus (and then he won an Oscar anyway!) and made some quite diverse and interesting movies because, I get the impression, thats what he wants to do. And from the trailer I got the impression of a real kids film - a train crashing though a station, a kid hanging off a clock, Sacha Baron Cohen playing the villain. I just had to see it.

And really, it's not like that at all. It's something far more magical.

To steal from the big book of reviewing cliches, Hugo is a film of two halves, a decent one, and a great one. Thankfully they are in that order, which leaves you with a warm glow on the way out the cinema. The first half centers on the eponymous Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan boy living behind the walls of a Parisian railway station, keeping the clocks running and avoiding the watchful eye of Sacha Baron Cohen's limping station gendarme. The imagery, the small human boy living amongst the vast clockwork, is fantastic, and the 3D work clean and effective without being showy; another example of the technology applied well and for effect, rather than show. Hugo's real work, however, is an old automaton his late father found in a museum, that he is working to finish by pilfering mechanical parts wherever he can, mostly from the toy shop ran by Ben Kingsley's jaded and irritable Monsieur Georges. 

After being busted, Georges and Hugo form a rough sort of bond, and Hugo comes into contact with Georges' goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) and embarks on both an unlikely freindship and, once the automaton is fixed and appears to link to Georges, an investigation into who he really is. And that is really the first half of the film. Its not bad, although the pacing is more in line with Scorsese's more adult films and I could feel the kids in the audience twitching in places. And the performances are decent enough, although Moretz seems to struggle with the accent at times and Sacha Baron Cohen unfortunately echoes the english spy character from 'Allo 'Allo. It is strikingly beautiful to look at though; a picture-postcard Paris, and gorgeously lit sets, a reminder that many live-action kids films aren't directed with half the ability almost casually thrown about here.
God Moaning! (Sorry)
And the the reveal of who Georges really is, and the film just transcends it's earlier self.

What Hugo becomes, and what isn't apparent from the adverts or trailers, is a great tribute to early cinema, to the pioneers and the dreamers of the art. It's also about despair, and how those dreams can be lost, nearly forgotten, and then restored. And suddenly everything clicks - the performances, the story, the visuals all unfold together into one grand vision of how the power of cinema transforms peoples lives.

Again, I am left wondering what the kids in the audience thought of it all. I mean, I loved it, but in many ways its a very grown-up film. It's pacing is grown up; it's themes are grown up. It needs a child, or more specifically a child's eyes, and a child's wonder, work, but a lot of the depth is the brokenness of the adults, from Georges bitterness, the Gendarmes loneliness, and even Hugo's quiet despair are left mostly in the subtext - where they belong! - and that subtlety of characterization is one of the films strengths. I'm not sure that there are enough chases, peril and more obvious drama for kids to hang onto when the rest may just go over their heads. But maybe I underestimate them.

In the end, Hugo becomes one of these films about films, and about filmmakers, that often become vanity projects and don't always come across well. Scorsese has been here before, of course, with the badly underrated The Aviator and perhaps I fear that Hugo will suffer a similar fate - lost in the kiddie movie ghetto because it is advertised as such and comes with a PG rating. But I hope not - whilst certainly not an unblemished triumph, Hugo is a labour of love, a film that leaves you with a warm feeling inside, and a real tribute to the giants on whose shoulders modern masters like Scorsese stand upon.