Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s love letter to THE MAGIC OF CINEMA, is two things: the end result of Scorsese’s desire to make something with 3D technology, presumably before the bottom falls out of the market, and a plea for a better understanding of, and a greater respect for, early cinema. The result: a load of irritating 3D effects and a grating, preaching tone.
The film is attractive, all fairy lights and clockwork and steam, but every time a 3D shot gets thrown in I found myself distracted by it. It’s ironic that a film that’s fundamentally about THE MAGIC OF CINEMA features so much alienating and fourth wall-breaking camerawork; every time a character reaches into the screen or looks straight into the camera it reminds me that the shot was made for 3D. Scorsese tries to keep things varied but it’s still all so bloody obvious: trains, crowds of people, scenery, even a load of feet at one point, all heading straight for the camera; it might work in a 3D context but in 2D it screams YOU’RE WATCHING A 3D FILM YOU LOSER.
Beyond the pointless 3D showboating, the film has nothing; Hugo is a confection. The character of Hugo himself is bland and watery and it doesn’t take long for Chloë Moretz’s “Golly, I love adventures and books and secrets!” schtick to wear thin. There’s a few supporting characters involved in some minor romantic subplots but they could have been removed and nothing of value would have been lost, and Sasha Baron Cohen is grating and unfunny. Generally, I mean.
Once the clockwork mannequin plot is resolved — early and underwhelmingly — all the film has to carry it along is a superficial history lesson on Georges Méliès and a bit of preaching about the value of film preservation, complete with the fetishising of film stock and analogue projection that seems to plague film-lovers of a certain age, grumbling about the inexorable rise of digital.
I expected to like Hugo, but I felt like Scorsese was standing over me, slapping me around the face with a roll of film shouting LOOK AT THE MAGIC ISN’T THIS MAGICAL AREN’T YOU GIDDY? I was left wondering why Scorsese didn’t just make a documentary on Méliès and early film instead; he could have gone into more depth, presented a more coherent argument for the value of physical film, elaborated on film preservation and restoration techniques, perhaps touched upon his own restoration of The Red Shoes. Hugo tries so hard to be magical and to convey the sense of wonder that the director obviously feels for the medium, but ends up boring, trite and pointless.