Hugo – a lecture on cinematic history

Martin Scorcese’s first foray into the world of 3D is a visual feast. It was clearly conceived to be the most modern ode to early cinema imaginable. As such it succeeds. As an involving, even exciting movie experience however, it falls flat.

3D has yet to win me over. But when it is done well, as in Avatar and again in this film, it does have its attractions. The depth of vision, and finely tweaked scenes, sets and action really pull you into the movie, more’s the pity that the lackluster telling of the central tale pushes you right back out again. That’s a shame because I really felt myself wanting to love this film. But like one of the central elements, a wind up automaton, it felt mechanical and cold.

The story of titular character Hugo, a young orphan living in the catacombs and attics of 19th century Parisian Grand Central station is one of discovery: a great adventure. A first point of criticism: if you like your protagonists to be whiny, sniveling and perpetually morose, you’ll get along with Hugo just fine. If you enjoy a bit of rapscallion thrown into the mix, look elswhere.

But this is a minor failing in comparison with the fact that the central adventure, the will and needs of the main characters take a back seat to the actual heart of the movie, which is summed up by a scene in which the viewer is literally lectured on the history of film and its great forgotten pioneer. Heavy handed indeed.

The philosophical tenet, which is also thrown at us like a sack of broken toys, seems to be that the world is a machine with no spare parts. Everyone has a role and if that is taken away, the machine is broken. Luckily, in this cinematic world, all can be fixed! Thank the lucky stars.

One could say that I am being unduly harsh as the film was made with two audiences in mind, kids and adults, and can therefore never fully satisfy either. But I wasn’t sure whilst watching it all play out whether younger viewers would actually comprehend much of the movie. After all, usually there is a quite tangible mission that needs to be fulfilled for the adventure to come full circle. In this case, the mission is quite abstract and metaforical and doesn’t even involve any real loot! Where is the pot of gold?!

All in all, an easy A for visual splendor, but a plodding C+ for story execution.