Hugo

Hugo

***

Reviewed by: David Graham

It's reassuring that Martin Scorsese's impending old age hasn't curtailed his prolific output - he's been restlessly genre-hopping for years without sacrificing consistency. One of the only stones he's left unturned is the family film, so it's both endearing and exciting to be greeted with such a prospect. His clout is such that this new film has even had the staunchest 3D naysayers salivating at the idea of him tackling such new-fangled technology, and he does indeed take the process to new heights of dizzying ingenuity.

He's also taken note of how sophisticated kid-flicks have become of late, and in adapting Brian Selznick's period fantasy novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret he's found a perfect platform to try to entertain children as well as adults while also communicating his admirable appreciation for the art of storytelling in general and cinema in particular.

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Hugo is an orphan living behind the clock-faces of a Paris railway station, watching the commuters and shop-tellers as they go about their business and occasionally nipping among them to pinch whatever he needs. In the absence of his alcoholic uncle, he's taken the job of keeping the clocks running as his own, dreaming of one day being able to put the skills he's learning to use so that he can operate an automaton his father left him when he died.

A grouchy old toy-shop owner catches Hugo thieving parts for his project, and puts him to work as recompense, throwing him together with his spirited but similarly troubled grand-daughter Isabelle. The pair think her Papa Georges may form part of the puzzle behind the automaton's secrets, but their investigations lead them into the path of the war-crippled Inspector Gustav, who loves nothing more than sending apprehended urchins to the orphanage and a life of intolerable drudgery.

Hollywood's dalliance with all things French (and particularly Parisian) continues in earnest with this gleaming evocation of the capital in its prime. Mostly taking place in a train station that feels refreshingly like a real place while still maintaining the requisite fantastical cartoon aura, Hugo positively shimmers with burnished detail; almost every frame is spectacularly composed, the sets radiant with color and light. It's a bit strange that no one speaks with even the slightest hint of a French accent - something which the recent and comparable Tintin adaptation failed to exploit as well - but there's no denying the seductive pull of Scorsese's visuals.

To this end, the 3D is brilliantly immersive and really does enhance the scenes where our hero negotiates the maze of cogs he calls home, whether he's being chased or merely doing his everyday rounds. The CGI is also woven into the action with a deft touch. There are precious few moments where the illusion is shattered by actors interacting with non-existent scenery. Scorsese could really teach the likes of Cameron and Lucas a thing or two about how to utilise these powerful tools without swamping the action.

So it's somewhat surprising that after an hour of, admittedly, directionless hi-jinks, Scorsese dons his film lecturer clobber and his kid-flick becomes an appreciative but indulgent Cinema History 101 class. His referential re-enactments of everything from Harold Lloyd to Fritz Lang will massage the ego of the informed but like most modern remakes, these scenes lack the heart and soul of their inspirations, and aren't imaginative or exciting enough out of context for the average Harry Potter-weaned punter. Children will likely start precociously fidgeting at the precise moment cineastes start paying attention; the narrative loses steam like one of the trains coming into station as the second half gets bogged down with wistful flashbacks and film-within-a-film trickery.

It's all well and good banging on about magicians and the magic of cinema, but while there's no doubting the genuine depth of Scorsese's passion for the medium - and he proves to be a veritable technological wizard himself - Hugo tragically has precious little sparkle of its own. At times it's reminiscent of the ingenious 'Sweded' versions of popular videos that made Be Kind Rewind such a heartfelt ode to the DIY aesthetic, but Scorsese goes in the opposite direction, throwing money and resources at a storyline that could really have done with being pruned a little.

The unappealing and stiff Asa Butterfeld is sadly another big part of the problem; his weaknesses as an actor actually worked in his favor for his debut role as a naive Nazi moppet in The Boy With The Striped Pyjamas, but here he lacks the charm necessary to get the audience on-side for his sticky-fingered clockwork mouse exploits. Chloe Moretz reflects his deficiencies by being as nuanced and engaging as usual, pulling off a plummy English accent and channeling the sort of mischievous energy that's key to enlivening such material.

Ben Kingsley is also note perfect as her down-at-heel toy-maker guardian, conveying reserves of hurt and disappointment without ever coming across as a mere misery-guts. Helen McRory and Jude Law are also impressive as Kingsley's wife and Butterfeld's father, fleshing out their characters with a minimum of screen time, and fans of Christopher Lee will be delighted by his short but sweet cameo as an appropriately creaky advocate for the antiquated pursuit of reading.

Bumbling about around them all like he's on the wrong set, Sacha Baron Cohen puts in a frankly bizarre performance that will likely mystify even his most ardent fans. It's as if his Bruno character is attempting a Cockney accent, while trying to reel in his abrasive mincery to the point of looking perpetually constipated. His physical tomfoolery wrings a few laughs out of some pretty standard situations, but his romantic subplot with Emily Mortimer's window-dressing flower-girl is woefully misjudged, being neither sweet nor funny enough to prove anything other than an awkward diversion.

Despite his presence there's no real villain, never any sense of danger or threat; the adventure has too vague a purpose, ironic given our child heroes have a lengthy midway conversation about that very notion. Even though it's a very delineated game of two halves, Hugo still feels like it's gone way into overtime by the end. It's like a latter-day Tim Burton film without even the dark undertow that makes them interesting in passing. It's rambling, muddled in tone, riddled with plot-holes and full of story threads left dangling come the credits.

For all that, it still merits investigation as a curious cinematic trinket, casting itself back to the form's inception like a Russian doll giving up its contents. There's enough sumptuous eye-candy and commitment to the performances to keep you involved if not exactly enthralled, it's just a shame Scorsese couldn't have tailored his creation better for a target audience or balanced it more for the masses.

Reviewed on: 07 Dec 2011
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Set in 1930s Paris, an orphan who lives in the walls of a train station is wrapped up in a mystery involving his late father and an automaton.
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Director: Martin Scorsese

Writer: John Logan, based on the novel by Brian Selznick

Starring: Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law, Kevin Eldon, Gulliver McGrath, Shaun Aylward

Year: 2011

Runtime: 127 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: US

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