I made a point of catching Martin Scorsese’s change-of-pace movie, Hugo, because it was highly praised, both by film critic Michael Medved, and my friend Anthony Sacramone of the Strange Herring blog. My own response is ambivalent. This is a brilliant, fascinating, beautiful movie, suitable for all ages. Nevertheless, it hasn’t done very good business (I saw it in a theater almost empty), and that doesn’t actually surprise me much. As Sacramone notes, “. . . it’s a kids’ film for adults.”
I don’t think actual kids will love it (that may not be a bad thing either, as I’ll explain below). But adults, especially ones who love cinema, will embrace it once they discover it. I expect cult status on DVD is in its future.
The titular hero is Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphan boy who lives in the Paris railroad station. He was brought there to live by his drunkard uncle, who took care of the station clocks. After teaching Hugo to do the job, the man disappeared. Hugo has been maintaining the clocks on his own ever since, afraid of apprehension by the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen in an interesting performance), who takes perverse delight in sending orphans to an institution.
Hugo lives off pilfered food, and also steals small mechanical parts, especially from Georges (Ben Kingsley), an old man who runs a toy shop in the station. He wants the parts for his ongoing project of repairing an automaton (a moving clockwork human figure), his only inheritance from his father. The two of them had been repairing it when his father died, and Hugo believes that if he can get it working, it will somehow deliver a message from his father.
But old Georges catches Hugo one day, and confiscates the notebook that has been Hugo’s working guide. He demands that Hugo work for him to earn it back. That’s how Hugo comes to meet Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), Georges’s spunky, book-loving ward. She becomes Hugo’s friend and co-conspirator.
It is finally revealed that Georges is in fact Georges Méliès, the pioneering film director who essentially invented the special effects movie. Embittered by the failure of his film company, Georges wants nothing more to do with films, and won’t even let Isabelle attend one. Hugo’s quest to repair the automaton gets entwined with the attempt to help Georges rediscover his personal achievement. He risks his very life in that pursuit.
This is a visually fascinating film, lovingly photographed, with glorious (and not intrusive) special effects. The beauty of precision machines, and the wonder of dreams, are evoked with equal affection. I thought the story itself a little weak, especially the section where Georges’s spirit is reawakened. I thought his “conversion,” engineered by Hugo, unconvincing. And that relates to my major problem with the film. It’s not a moral objection (the movie is suitable for most audiences), but what I might call a prudential one.
It goes back to what might be called the Parent Trap problem. In that movie (I only know the original version), two children conspire to “fix” their divorced parents’ marriage, just as Hugo tries to “fix” (that’s the word they use) Georges’s broken heart.
The problem is that this story line, while probably harmless for children in happy, secure situations, is precisely the wrong one to send to children in tragic circumstances (such as a divorce or a death in the family) or to children who are suffering abuse of any kind.
Children think magically. They always believe that if their parents are breaking up, or if Grandma dies, it’s somehow because of something they did. Stories that suggest that really clever and courageous children can repair the lives of adults send precisely the wrong message. Children in tragedy need to be unempowered, to be told gently that they are not responsible, and nobody places any weight on their small shoulders. Abused children need to find an adult they can trust, and to whom they can tell the truth (something Hugo steadfastly refuses to do until the very end).
However, I don’t think children will really like this movie much. It’s mainly for grown-ups with a childlike love for the cinema. If you’re one of those, I expect you’ll enjoy it a lot.