Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review: "Hugo"

"Hugo" is an often-delightful movie that always kept me guessing. It's got a lot of Charles Dickens mixed with a little steampunk fantasy, layered with a rich frosting of tribute to early 20th century silent filmmaking.

In a world where most movies seem to make the entirety of themselves obvious the moment they begin, it was a pleasurable experience to have a film that took its time establishing itself. There doesn't seem to be much of a coherent story for a great deal of the time, just a sprawling group of characters who don't appear to be behaving for the camera. Slowly, though, themes and urgencies coalesce.

This is perhaps the most uncharacteristic movie Martin Scorsese has made, and not just because it's a children's movie, and contains tons of CGI and was shot in 3-D, no less. For once, the 3-D is not just an add-on to pump up ticket grosses, but actually enhances the cinematic experience by adding layers and textures without spotlighting them for their own sake.

The visuals are gorgeous and lush, almost painterly in their evocation of 1930s Paris in winter. The gently twinkling lights, the crisp white snow, the people who dress up in suits and gowns for a simple trip to the train station -- it's a feast for the eyes.

No, this is a departure for Scorsese because he's not exploring his usual theme, the human savagery hidden by urban society. He has made a paean to the dreamers, magicians and tinkerers who strive to reshape their world into something beautiful. This is a story of hope and striving, not sorrow and loss.

Asa Butterfield (who starred in the criminally unappreciated "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas") plays Hugo Cabret, an orphan boy who lives inside the clocks and mechanical guts of the Paris train depot. His uncle, the timekeeper, has long ago disappeared in a drunken fling, and Hugo's clockmaker father died. So he's tragically, achingly alone.

Hugo peers through the clock faces and steam grates at the denizens of the train station, with two figures holding most of his attention. One is the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, chewing his vowels), an unctuous man with a bad leg supported by a squeaky metal brace, whose specialty is snatching up lost children and shipping them off to the orphanage.

The other is the owner of the toy shop (Ben Kingsley), from whom Hugo has quietly been stealing parts for his own special project. Hugo and his father began repairing a strange automaton, a little metal man who sits at a writing desk. Hugo has become obsessed with getting this creation working again to see what secrets it holds.

I can't say anything more about the plot for fear of spoiling the film's charms. Suffice it to say the toymaker's goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) will factor in heavily, plus the local flower girl (Emily Mortimer), an ancient bookshop owner (Christopher Lee), and the movies of the great silent filmmaker, Georges Méliès.

As much as I admired "Hugo," I could not give myself over entirely to it. The movie's emotional connections are tenuous -- Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan, working from Brian Selznick's book, never let things get too dark and dreary. Even the villainous station inspector, presented as a buffoon, is allowed  redemptive love interest. And the toymaker's bile over his shattered dreams washes away a little too quickly and conveniently.

I also noticed a disturbing artificiality to Moretz' performance -- little gestures and facial expressions that seemed overly theatrical and less than spontaneous. She's been terrific in everything else I've seen her in ("Let Me In," "Kick-Ass"), so I can only fault Scorsese's direction of her.

"Hugo" is gorgeous movie-making that, in end, feels mostly like an homage to itself.

3 stars out of four

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