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Ten Word or Less Review: Very beautiful, very voluptuous looking and very, very dull.

The importance of film preservation and the significance of silent movies to the birth of movies themselves are noble movements to embrace and to champion.  An uncountable amount of silent era cinema has been lost at the hands of times oppressive weight.  The amount of films destroyed destroyed by time can only be estimated and the recovery of lost gems can only be an increasingly infrequent occurance.  Many masterpieces will never bee seen again.  What still exist must be saved and current and future generations need to understand the importance of preserving cinematic culture, past and present.  We must also sit and ponder why Martin Scorsese has chosen to so heavily embed these causes into the fabric of Hugo, an ornate, opulent and gorgeous children’s movie which is as beautiful as an antique clock, and about as alive.

Based on the acclaimed childrens book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Hugo stars Asa Butterfield as the character of the title, an orphan living in the walls and clock towers of a Paris train station circa 1920’s.  Hugo is trying desperately to avoid detection and capture by the Station Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen), a ruthless, limp legged authoritarian adamant about rounding up the orphan rabble which drifts into his world.  Hidden away in the innards of the station, Hugo attempts to rebuild a mysterious automaton, a mechanical man which stands as the last connection to his father who died in a museum fire.  In opportune moments Hugo steals trinkets from a grumpy, sullen toy maker working in the station, hoping to find the right parts which will bring his machine to life.  One day he’s caught thieving and the toy maker takes Hugo’s sketch book of the mysterious machine.  Hugo has to repay his debt of stolen items to reclaim his book.  He strikes up a friendship with the toy makers’ granddaughter Isabelle and the two begin an investigation which wraps around from Hugo, to his automaton, back to the emotionally troubled toy maker.  The world of silent movies are explored, forgotten pasts are dug up and the significance of cinema is made abundantly clear.

Hugo is a meticulous visual creation with few equals.  Director Martin Scorsese pours attention and detail into every frame as if its starved for more and no amount of beauty can be enough.  He exquisitely deploys 3D, showing a true eye for the medium as if he’s worked in it scores of times, though this is his first.  Hugo is so full of depth and dimension that it should be used as a tutorial about how to properly use the often maligned and misappropriated 3D format.  His camera effortlessly moves through crowds of people, clock parts tick in fully realized dimensions, it’s all quite perfect looking.  But that’s where the glowing praise must come to an end.  Despite the lavish nature of the production and the abundant skill on display regarding its construction and look, Hugo is agonizingly inert as a story.

Running two hours and feeling every bit of three, Hugo has a leaden pace from which it does not arouse itself.  With enough story for a briskly paced 90 minute childrens movie at his hands, Scorsese has needlessly indulged himself, filling out the sides of his narrative with padding and filler at every corner, leaving his movie feeling languid and adrift.  Each individual scene left to itself would play nicely, but as things keep stacking up Hugo sustains a slow rut of narrative lethargy.  It’s like the great classic trains running through the station of the movie, except most of the coal has vanished from the boiler and the massive, gorgeous creation can go no faster than a crawl.  As Hugo finally comes to a head Scorsese launches his story into PSA territory, staring boldly into the camera and stating ‘This stuff is important! You should care about this!  Watch a silent movie!’  Most things about Hugo run contrary to the usual demands and conventions of kid oriented cinema which would normally be great, but Hugo isn’t subversive or challenging, it’s simply tedious.

The lack of a compelling narrative is doubly unfortunate because Scorsese demands top quality casts and he’s not let down here.  Asa Butterfield aquits himself well as Hugo though he’s not quite a captivating lead.  Frequent scene stealer Chloe Moretz (Let Me In) once again shines and shows she’s an amazing young actress, but Isabelle is sadly a supporting player, not the lead.  Her pluck and energy would’ve made a better center for the story.  One reason Hugo feels emotionally unsatisfying is because as the story progresses it becomes less about Hugo and Isabelle and more about Ben Kingleys’ toy maker.  The mystery wrapped around this emotionally damaged and withdrawn man becomes the center of the movie and it’s his emotional journey which occupies the finale of the movie, not the kids.  They become passive observers in their own story.  Not quite in line with everyone else is Borat star Sasha Baron Cohen.  His part has a nice payoff but he’s mostly relegated to chasing Hugo through the station with his doberman and gammy leg.  Jude Law, Brendon Gleeson, Emily Mortimer and Christopher Lee round out the very capable cast with small supporting roles.

It’s quite possible that audiences will see no better looking movie than Hugo anytime soon.  It is a well adorned, sumptuous, resplendent looking movie with few equals in the visual realm.  It’s the kind of painstaking creation that only a master of form like Scorsese could successfully pull off.  But it’s saddled to a dull story that few adults will embrace and even fewer children could care for.  For die hard film appreciators and aficionados Scorsese has made a love letter exclusively for them.  Everyone else will probably feel left out in the cold.

 

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