I must be one of the very few who dislike Hugo. It’s currently, and extravagantly, sitting pretty with a 93% Tomatometer in Rotten Tomatoes. Whilst everyone has been praising it so high that it stinks of critics’ armpits, the 7% minority has been condemning it so hard, exposing what Hugo really is – a showboating parade of CGI and 3D tricks, masquerading as a family/adventure film although it’s really an extended campaign for Martin Scorcese’s film preservation. Whilst I personally don’t have any problem with Scorcese and his passionate project (you’ve got to love the guy for single-handedly saving cinema!), but creating a quasi-documentary about the birth of film wrapped up in a children’s movie just feels awkward. It’s like baking a cake without soda powder – the results are flat. Okay, we get it, Scorcese wanted to save whatever celluloid buried in the dust, so why not make a straightforward documentary instead, rather than potter around with kids’ fantasies?
Much has been made of his tribute to 1920’s French cinema, scoring 11 Oscar nominations the previous awards season (mostly technical, and that undeserved Best Picture nom, if you ask me) and getting some good loving from the critics.The intentions here are all good, aside from the deliberate exploitation of 3D, potentially compelling all kiddywinks to really start giving some serious shit about how important George Méliès really is. It looks super glossy, majestically designed, calibrated and polished. Plus, Scorcese brings out all the gliding camerawork that would make logistic department’s heads spin. The problem is, there’s too much reliance on CGI that the exciting turn-of-the-century Paris look as superficial as Sir Ben Kingley’s curling moustasche.
Cameras fly and swoop over Gare Montparnasse, and through the intricate clockwork which orphaned hero Hugo Cabret patrols by day. But even these trickeries can’t conceal the slog of a plot running through the heart of Hugo, which is all built-up to Scorcese’s purpose in revealing Méliès as the grandaddy of visual effects. The latter sequences which involves loving adoration to Méliès’ Le Voyage Dans La Lune and his early craft are rather wonderful – and that says enough that the good things about Hugo is not really about its central street-urchin character. And whether we should judge a film depending on what it pays homages to and not on the very film we are watching is questionable, a stickler to our responsibility as film audience. Just because it’s directed by Scorcese doesn’t mean it’s that good. There are far better-made children’s films out there, and better-made films about the love of cinema. If you want to watch a film that celebrate the love of movies, go watch Cinema Paradiso instead where there’s nary CGI nor 3D employed, only pure emotion and heart – two elements that incontestably make good recipe for great cinema.
For a film about the early invention of cinema, this is thuddingly, disappointingly pedestrian and at worst, superficial. We admire Scorcese’s self-appointed role as an Ambassador of Film Preservation, but Hugo is all technical wizardry and visual polish with very little narrative elegance. Take away all that gizmo, and we’re left with another fatherless boy with another mysterious key trying to discover whatever it unlocks. Something like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close set in the turn-of-the-century Paris.