© 2011 Ray Wong
If you're not familiar with Brian Selznick's Hugo, you'd have thought it's a fantasy set in 1930s Paris judging from Martin Scorsese's fantastical production. It is, in fact, a historical drama.
After his father (Jude Law) died in a fire, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives and works with his uncle (Ray Winstone) at the clock tower at the train station in Paris. He is trying to stay under the radar of the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), for fear of being taken away as an orphan. The boy tries desperately to fix an automaton which could write, because he believes it would send him a message from his father. However, while trying to steal parts from a toyshop owner Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), Hugo gets caught and his notebook is confiscated. Later, Papa Georges tells him that he's burned the book.
But Georges's goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) tells Hugo that Papa Georges didn't burn the book. In fact, he's very sad for some reason. Hugo and Isabelle become fast friends. When she tries to help him find the notebook, they discovers Papa Georges is hiding a secret -- he has a box full of fantastical drawings. In solving the mystery, Hugo and Isabelle find out that the automaton is linked to Papa Georges.
Asa Butterfield (Nanny McPhee Returns) has the tremendous responsibility as the titular character. He more and less have to carry the film on his shoulders (with the help of veteran actors, of course). He does a good job. While he may not be as skilled and talented as an actor like some of his contemporaries, his performance is good enough to make us care about Hugo. Chloe Grace Moretz (Let Me In) is also good, but she plays it safe here, and we miss her edgier roles.
The veterans help lift the performances to a high level. Ben Kingsley (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) is particular great as Georges. His range is amazing and reminds us why he is one of the best actors of our time. Sacha Baron Cohen (Bruno) is all right as the station inspector, but his performance is rather a caricature. Emily Mortimer (Shutter Island), Christopher Lee (Alice in Wonderland), Ray Winstone (Lost in Italy) and Jude Law (Sherlock Holmes) all have small but affecting parts. Helen McCrory (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) is extraordinarily charming and graceful as Mama Jeanne.
Adapted from Selznick's award-winning novel, the screenplay by John Logan (Rango) follows the original story rather faithfully. The story and plot, however, have the trappings of a children's story -- it's rather simplistic at times. The multiple subplots and threads seem irrelevant sometimes, even though the characters are endearing. The main thrust of the story is basically a mystery, but it feels more like an extended character study. There's nothing wrong with it, and we like the characters just fine.
However, at times the plot does seem to drag, and the pace a bit slow. The story explores certain serious themes such as loss, desperation, and generosity. But for many of its target young audience, these themes may be lost on them.
What is fantastic is the production. Director Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island) gives us a beautiful world, rendered mostly with CGI, set in a romantic time period. The art direction is amazing, and the production sometimes too gorgeous to behold. Scorsese also makes the best use of the 3D technology, and this is a film you must see in 3D. His use of camera angles, sets, perspectives, field of depth, etc. accentuates the effects of 3D. It's truly a feast for the eye.
While it is technically and artistically superior, and with good performances, I can't help but feel somewhat let down by the movie. Perhaps I was expecting something a bit more fantastical or other-worldly. Instead, we get a rather simple story with a simple mystery.
Stars: Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Jude Law
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: John Logan (based on Brian Selznick's novel)
MPAA Rating: PG for mild thematic material, peril and smoking
Running Time: 127 minutes
Script - 7
Performance - 8
Direction - 9
Cinematography - 9
Music/Sound - 8
Editing - 8
Production - 10
Total - 8.0 out of 10.0