Disjointed, indulgent and overblown yet still garnering huge praise. It’s Avatar all over again!
It’s fair to say that no-one was expecting this one. When it was announced that Martin Scorsese was directing a period kids picture in 3D, fans of his more left-field choices – The Age of Innocence, Kundun, etc – were likely to be intrigued as to how he would bring his authority to bear on something as delicate and whimsical as Brian Selznick’s novel-cum-picture book 'The Invention of Hugo Cabret'.
Others chided themselves that they were less open to such an idea than they would be to see Marty take a trip back to the old neighbourhood with Pesci and De Niro in tow.
Already a success in the US, with firm box-office bolstered by ecstatic reviews, it would seem that Scorsese has hit this one for six, but while many will be caught up in the warm-hearted sumptuousness, more than a few are going to find themselves scratching their heads as to how such a disjointed, indulgent, overblown film is garnering so much praise. It’s Avatar all over again!
It’s Paris of the 1930s and after the death of his inventor father (Jude Law, in a cloying but mercifully brief cameo), young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is taken in by his gruff, drunken uncle (a wheezy and bewhiskered Ray Winstone) and set to work attending the clocks of the Paris train station.
When Uncle Ray dies, Hugo is left to scavenge a living whilst collecting the parts he needs to fix the automaton his father was working on when he died. His light fingers soon have him in trouble with gruff toymaker ‘Papa Georges’, which in turn leads to a friendship with Georges’ daughter Isabelle (Chloë Moretz).
After a slow, cautious, over-emphatically twee opening hour in which Hugo scampers around the vast, well-scrubbed station and we are introduced to the various vendors and officials – including Sacha Baron Cohen’s pathologically pernickety station-master and his flower girl paramour, played by Emily Mortimer – Hugo finally completes his automaton and the film spirals off on one long, looping wrong turn.
The remainder of the fairly generous runtime is given over to a treatise on the career of early cinema pioneer Georges Méliès and a plea on behalf of – this is ostensibly a kids film, remember – film preservation.
The clockwork motifs that have featured heavily throughout, combined with the poised halting relationships of the station inhabitants, has invited us to believe that everything will start clicking into place as Hugo’s adventure touches the lives of all (as in, say Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s The City of Lost Children), but this is all mere window dressing that’s dropped like a hot stone when Scorsese starts soapboxing about silver nitrate and the magic of the movie camera.
All this is quite probably meant to make Hugo a ‘movie in love with movies’ – as if this were, per se, a good and noble thing. But one of the central tenets of good filmmaking has always been ‘Show, don’t tell’. Scorsese has made a career making movies that show us that he’s in love with movies, and now he’s finally made one that quite insistently tells us that he is.
It not only diminishes the point significantly, but this narrative derailment also sees poor little Hugo Cabret shunted aside and relegated to the role of passenger in a film that bears his own name. No doubt Scorsese’s tribute is both sincere and heartfelt – and these lengthy sequences are indeed vivid and memorable – but quite what it has to do with Hugo’s story is quite baffling.
The film looks and feels wonderful, thanks to Robert Richardson’s sterling photography and Dante Ferretti’s grand production design, while the 3D presentation is wholly magnificent, lending even the most mundane shots a level of magic. Performances, however, tend toward a sense of wonderment that never truly arrives.
This may seem like a mean-spirited review, and many will see past the negatives (no pun intended) to find a magical adventure, but others will be left wondering if there was a name other than Scorsese’s on the credits would the film be basking in quite the level of praise it is currently enjoying.
It’s Scorsese in 3D – what part of that do you not want to see?
Beautiful but rambling opening section gives way to a history lesson better suited to documentary. The 3D is the one unalloyed treat.
It’s possible to see the attraction, but when people break into applause over the credits, some are going to be left cold.