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Full disclosure: I was very anti-Hugo when the movie first came out. Just something about the previews had me casting it as an overly whimsical fantasy trying to grab a hold of whatever coattails remained from the Harry Potter series. I eventually convinced myself to watch it. I’m glad I did, because I was completely wrong.
The film centers on the title character of orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who lives in a Paris train station and his attempts to both escape the attention of the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and rebuild an automaton he and his late father (Jude Law) were working on. Here is the strange thing: about halfway into it, the plot takes a sudden left turn, and the movie becomes about something else entirely.
I watched this film a few weeks back, and I still cannot decide if the change in direction was a good or bad move. I suppose I am slightly biased considering the second half of the movie heavily features the classic film Le Voyage dans la lune. While it is not something I tend to talk about a lot, I am a big fan of Georges Méliès’s 1902 film. I’m no expert on it by any means, but I must have watched the whole thing or segments of it countless times. Seeing it being featured in a big-budget blockbuster the way it is in Hugo makes me very happy as it (somewhat unknown to today’s modern audiences) is given a very large promotional push. I hope that others who see Hugo go and check out Le Voyage…
Moving beyond the story (which I left intentionally vague, because I really don’t want to spoil it), this film was a bit of a mixed bag. The acting was excellent. The child actors in particular were fantastic. Chloe Grace Moretz is always great, but Butterfield is the real surprise here. For a virtual unknown child actor to be as solid as he is, it is a rare find. Everyone else well cast including the always terrific Ben Kingsley and the surprisingly low-key Sacha Baron Cohen. That said I do feel that there were several superfluous characters that seemed to be added to the movie for no reason than to pad it out. For example, do we really need multiple scenes where we see the same couple unable to connect romantically due to the woman’s dog? It struck me as unnecessary.
The set design is excellently done and almost has a magical quality about it. I use that term loosely, because Hugo isn’t about “magic” in the fantasy sense, but the train station (and the computer generated skyline of Paris) has a large-than-life quality to it. It looks slightly cartoony, but it really works. If I had one issue, it would have to be that it was a lot to swallow for me to accept that all the clocks in the train station were connected through some sort of between-the-walls passageway. The way the station was from the lobby’s design didn’t seem to match how Hugo’s hideout was depicted. However, this is a minor issue at best.
One final thing about Hugo that might make viewers be a tad impatient with it is that the pacing is all over the place. The first 30 or so minutes movie incredibly slow. From there, it starts to pick up and continues to move. By the end of the film, we are zipping along. This tends to a common when it comes to Martin Scorsese’s films. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t mind a movie with a slow burn, but it needs to move faster than a snail.
I would recommend Hugo to others. The thing that I really enjoyed about it was its intelligence and the history lesion that surprisingly worms its way into the narrative. You don’t get that with many family films. Even the good ones tend to be very pedestrian and don’t stray too far from “the moral”. Hugo stands apart, and I’m disappointed that it took me so long to see it.