A Strange Review: Hugo


If you read the entertainment press at all, you’ll have noticed all the four- and five-star reviews and raves of Masterpiece! that Martin Scorsese’s latest, Hugo, has received. That the director best known for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and Goodfellas was straying into Steven Spielberg/George Lucas territory was seen as a category mistake by some. Nevertheless, if the critics are right, Scorsese’s having temporarily abandoned the world of secret societies, strange codes of conduct, and loyalty above all has proved an eye-popping, impressive, and altogether successful venture.

But is the film really as good as the press?


Hugo Cabret is a little boy who lives in a Parisian train station. Having lost his beloved father, a fixer, a mechanic, in an accident, he is taken in by a drunk of an uncle whose job it is to wind all the clocks in the station. When the uncle takes off one day, Hugo continues winding the clocks lest someone notice that he is all alone  and – off to the orphanage for him.

When he isn’t dodging the station guard, played with an almost Germanic rigidity by Sasha Baron Cohen, he’s pilfering food and, more important, spare mechanical parts from vendors in the station. One such vendor, a seller of toys, catches him in the act, and forces him to empty his pockets. Along with the gears and springs and screws Hugo has accumulated is a notebook filled with sketches of what looks like a robot. The toy seller, Monsieur Georges (played by the pitch-perfect Ben Kingsley), is horrified by the book and snatches it away, refusing to return it, despite the boy’s tearful entreaties.

That notebook holds the key to the one thing Hugo has left from his late father – an automaton, found in a museum, but that is in a poor state of repair. Hugo is determined to fix the broken machine and see whether it holds some hidden message from his father – and some clue as to his own destiny.

It most certainly does, especially when it is learned that the surly toy seller is none other than the great French film magician George Melies, fallen on hard times, and that the notebook was originally his. After the First World War destroyed his career, such that hundreds of his “sci-fi” and fantasy films were destroyed or lost, Melies is reduced to selling trinkets and trying to forget his true vocation, lost forever.

But both Hugo and Melies were brought together for a reason: both will ensure that past tragedies are redeemed and that the future still holds surprises and hope – the hope of realizing one’s true calling despite all the obstacles a cruel world throws in one’s way.

Scorsese moves his characters through the train station and each other’s lives with such dexterity and death-defying grace as to render you speechless at times. Moving, fun, and wise, Hugo will give you both a catch in your throat and much to think about. As Hugo ponders the meaning of the mechanical man he has been left by his father, he comes to see that machines work because each and every part, no matter how small, no matter how insignificant, has a role to play in the larger scheme of things. Everything, in other words, has a purpose. Including the little orphan boy Hugo.

Sounds inspiring enough, until you contemplate the consequences for a bit. Doesn’t this reduce us all to mere cogs in a great machine? Doesn’t this risk viewing humanity as a grove of  clockwork oranges, with some parts damaged beyond repair, to be thrown on an overly efficient society’s junk heap, and others to be “fixed” in such a way that they become not their true selves but merely gears in the works of the rich and powerful?

While the film does not, Western Union–like, state it in so many words, certainly the implicit message is that such a fear, which literally haunts Hugo as a nightmare, can be assuaged by how we dream. Our imagination is what raises us above the mere machinery of the Industrial Age. Our ability to envision worlds yet to come, that may never come, at least in this life, so enlarges our perspective that we can never be merely useful. The dreamers are what keep us from being crushed by technology, even as that technology magnifies our capacity to realize and share those dreams.

Why hasn’t Hugo done better at the box office? Because it’s a kids’ film for adults. What kid has a love of the old – old movies, old books, old tales of adventure and daring do. Not the telling of the tales – but the mere remembering of the tales, and the world in which they were first conjured.

It’s also a film about the “magic” of the mechanical, the makeshift, and the gear-laden. The 1920s saw machines beginning to dominate industry, manufacturing – newfangled automobiles and automation and auto-everthing would at the close of another war see even more home-spun dreariness evaporate with the click of a switch. Yes, there was a time when one could still marvel at the possibilities.

Now we take this all for granted. What is there for kids to truly stare wide-eyed at anymore? With videogames and iPods and digital this and 3D that, any six-year-old can download an app or piece of software and zoink! — the miraculous right before his or her already bored eyes! The only advance is how quickly you can pull the rabbit out of your high-def hat.

To remember a time of such innocence, for lack of a better word, or perhaps the quotidian, when a wind-up toy, a mechanical man, and the movies as movies could still beguile is not for kids of 10 or 14. You’d have to at least remember buying records and videotape players and roll-up windows in cars. And what a big deal Star Wars and the first Superman were – You’ll believe a man can fly! Sheesh, today, you’d better make me believe I can fly.

So with or without the kids, run and see Hugo today. I’m hoping word of mouth will keep this in theaters long enough to see a decent return on investment. I see no real advantage of the 3D version over the 2D, by the way. As far as I’m concerned, if I was already convinced that 3D is a waste of money and Tylenol, Hugo did nothing to dissuade me. Talk about gilding the lily. The “magic” of 3D is a bit of a cheat and adds nothing to what the story – and the stories within the stories, those of Melies, and Harold Lloyd, and Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton, and all the great innovators and early artists of the silent-film era – already provides. 3D can never replicate the feeling those first movie audiences had when it looked like a train driving into a station was going to burst through the screen and plow right into them! We’re too jaundiced for that. Hugo is best experienced by way of God’s greatest special effect: the unaided human eye, and of course, imagination.


11 thoughts on “A Strange Review: Hugo

  1. You drew a lot of inspiration from the movie and I think your interpretation of the movie’s message is correct, but I couldn’t disagree more about the movie itself. I was thoroughly disappointed. It looked good – what Scorsese movie doesn’t? But the story-telling was hamhanded and slow.

    I guess they wanted to start with something exciting, so we get the intro scene of Hugo being chased through the train station – then the movie has to backtrack into a flashback to Hugo’s father. That story was dramatic enough – I think it would have been better to have just started the movie with it.

    The first two scenes with Melies (Ben Kingsley) were static and repetitive – kept repeating the same story point over and over – you’re a thief, I’m not a thief, etc., etc., etc. Could we move this exchange along a bit? (Yes, you’re right, Ben Kingsley was pitch perfect as far as the material allowed – but Ben Kingsley is rarely (ever?) anything else.)

    We finally get into a bit of story with Melies and his films – but we have to stop, not once but twice for lectures – first from that librarian/book store guy (I think Tabard) and then second from Melies himself. Because we’re not here to enjoy a story, we’re here to LEARN about the IMPORTANCE OF FILM.

    If Scorsese can’t commit to the story, he should just make a documentary about Melies and early film.



    1. It is an unconventional narrative, certainly, but I never felt it was disjointed or that Scorsese had failed to tell the story he wanted to tell (perhaps not the story you wished he had told), or that he failed to bring us along with him. For Scorsese — and any film that has George Melies as a character! — the history of early film and the loss of so much of that art form’s heritage due to chaos and decay IS the story, and the characters almost must be in its service.


  2. I think my criticisms were a bit more substantive than, “wa-a-h not the story I wanted him to make,” but in any event, I’ll just say, boring, which like beauty, I suppose, is in the eye of the beholder.

    OTOH, really excellent use of Sacha Baron Cohen as a touching villain.



  3. I saw it yesterday, and my responses are mixed. Visually wonderful, and I think it could become a cult favorite. But I see weaknesses in the storytelling, and I have a conceptual problem with the whole story. I’ll write about it on my blog.


  4. Thanks for this review. I took my 6 year old to see the movie on a sort of “day with Dad” excursion. He told Mom that it was a good movie, but after an hour he was asking, “When is it over?” You’re right: it’s a kids movie for adults. And I loved it.

    Given you’re remarks about the state of technology and the 3D version of the movie, you’ll perhaps appreciate a story. Our family tries to avoid 3D: more expensive than the already expensive regular tickets, and for the most part totally irrelevant to the movie in question. So when we discovered on my iPhone app that the showing of Hugo that we had planned to see was going to be in 3D, we searched via the app for a showing at a different theater. Great, there’s one showing in 30 minutes that we can make if we hurry! Turns out the app simply directed us to a different 3D showing. So 3D it was, and our “matinee” showing was $9.50 per ticket (no discounts for kids or matinees with 3D!). Occasionally “wow’d” by some object floating in front of him, my son mostly complained of the glasses hurting his ears.


    1. Charlie,

      Thanks for the comments.

      And yes, “Hugo” isn’t quite right for either the “Muppets” or the “Twilight” crowd. And I feel your pain on the price: the “matinee” price at my local googolplex was $13 for the 3D version, and they played the 2D only after 6 pm.

      I simply do not get the appeal of the 3D phenomenon. In the 70s, it was kinda fun to see an otherwise cheesy kung fu flick in 3D — but it was usually part of a double feature (remember those?), which cost all of $3.50. But I defy anyone to tell me with a straight face that, had “Hugo” been made strictly in 2D, they would have left the theater muttering, “It would’ve been SO much better in 3D!”

      To add insult to injury, I was forced to sit through 15 minutes of trailers, most of which hawked the re-release of old films in … 3D! “Titanic” in 3D? Who is clamoring for that? What, it didn’t make enough money the first time around? And I swear, take “Avatar”‘s grosses and adjust for general inflation and souped-up 3D-ticket prices and I would be surprised if it grossed more than “Star Wars: Episode IV.”

      Speaking of which: Note to George Lucas: You’re a brilliant showman whose one true masterpiece, “American Graffiti,” is usually forgotten amid the Darth Vader merchandising. But if you think re-releasing “Star Wars: Episode 1” in 3D is going to make it any less disappointing, unless that extra “D” stands for a door through which I can travel to 1999 and get my money back from the first time I saw it, I have a bridge I want to sell you too.


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