A young boy, orphaned by circumstance, lives in the secret passages of a large train station in 1920’s Paris. His story becomes entwined with that of George Melies, an early French filmmaker.
Hugo is fictional, but Melies is real, and many of the details about his life, even the strange story about some of his films being melted down for shoe heels, are historically accurate. Melies, who started as a magician, was apparently one of the first film-makers to appreciate the uses of special effects in movie-making, which makes him a particularly appropriate subject for this FX-driven film.
The visual imagery of this film, even in 2-D, is stunning. Both the Escher-like maze of the train station, and the dreamscape Paris-that-never-was, are outstanding feats of creative imagination. The snippets of early films, primitive though they are, are as enchanting to us as they clearly were to Scorsese. From the visual standpoint, Hugo is a triumph of modern movie-making, by a master at the top of his game.
The more traditional part of the movie — the story — is less successful. Many of the smaller characters — the book-seller, the flower-seller, the old couple in the cafe with the dog — are well-drawn and quite charming, even with only a few minutes on screen. Sacha Baron Cohen (better known as Borat), gives a surprisingy restrained performance as the stationmaster, broken in more ways than one. And he gets some of the best lines — “I don’t like the cut of your jib, little man.”
Ben Kingsley, normally an outstanding actor, is little more than a cipher here. His part is poorly written, but he doesn’t seem to have bothered to try and flesh it out. And the child actors playing Hugo and the young girl who befriends him are overly precious — they’re the Harry Potter kids, without the slice of wry. I cringed every time they were on screen. As a result, there’s a hole where the emotional center of this movie should be.
Hugo is a good film, worth seeing, and suitable for all but the youngest children (who might be creeped out by some of the chase scenes). But it could have been a much better one.