Reviewed By Daniel Kelly
Posted 12/14/11 10:44:04

"The re-invention of Martin Scorsese"
3 stars (Average)

Having built a now legendary career on the back of hardboiled genre flicks such as “Goodfellas” and “The Departed”, it is odd to observe Martin Scorsese transfer into the arena of family fuelled adventure with “Hugo”. An adaptation of Brian Selznick’s novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, “Hugo” is a beautifully designed feature, shot with all the majesty and detailed craft that one expects from its famed director. However despite a roster of strong performances and a resonant finish, the first two acts of the movie drag, a fact likely to deter the very young from appreciating its other moderate charms.

Hugo (Asa Butterfield giving a tremendously sympathetic performance) is an orphan who secretly operates the clocks in a Parisian train station, spending his days keeping the cogs ticking whilst also avoiding the gaze of the station’s goofy police inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen). Hugo also has one other purpose; he is desperate to rebuild an automaton his father was working on shortly before an untimely fire claimed his life. Collecting bits to try and get the robot mechanized once more, Hugo runs afoul of cranky shop owner Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), a man who takes a suspicious dislike to Hugo and his various projects. Teaming up with Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), Hugo embarks on a mysterious adventure, one that will answer questions about his own past and help others come to appreciate and cope with their own.

The look of “Hugo” is phenomenally polished, Scorsese sparing no expense with his lavish set design and eye for the spectacular. Paris is captured via a mixture of CGI and practical sets, the picture oozing a European sensibility from each meticulously sculpted frame. It’s not entirely impossible that the film’s greatest redeeming feature is its impressive visual aesthetic, the picture providing viewers with a beautiful world almost richer than any of its protagonists.

The screenplay is clumsy at times, although it can’t be faulted in terms of imbuing the piece with a notable emotional core. Thanks to a selection of mature performances and an attention to some unusually complex character arcs for a children’s flick, “Hugo” successfully manages to make the audience care about its lead and the various other figures that inhabit his world, allowing the finale to register with pleasant depth and clarity. However the opening two acts are much patchier, the tale unfolding at a lethargic pace, Scorsese infuriatingly keeping too many of the story’s secrets for far too long. There are some enjoyable set-pieces (several of the foot chases through the station are wonderfully shot) and Cohen’s over the top turn as Gustav helps provide a dollop of firm and skilled comic relief, but ultimately the picture lulls too often. It’s never offensively dull or unbearably boring, yet the opening hour is unquestionably uneven in its ability to entertain.

As is often the case with the filmmaker, Scorsese turns “Hugo” into a blunt love letter to cinema, tying the history of the art form and the fate of the film’s characters inextricably together. This portion of the movie feels extremely reminiscent of last year’s “Shutter Island”, another venture that operated largely as a celebration of bygone B-movie classics. However whilst “Shutter Island” was subtle about its admiration for schlocky psychological yarns, “Hugo” quickly feels like an academic lecture, Scorsese working in the basic history of cinema rather uncomfortably. I can appreciate where he’s coming from, and indeed some warmth emanates from this addition to the feature, but at times it feels like more unnecessary baggage in an already overcooked fantasy.

“Hugo” is worth a look on the basis that it affords cineastes the chance to see a master of the camera move outside of his comfort zone, and indeed the results are more often good than bad. However, it’s hard to imagine this being remembered as one of Marty’s crowing achievements, instead “Hugo” feels destined to be labelled a watchable yet flawed curio.

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