Let’s shepherd that big white elephant out of the room right away – the 3D in Hugo is some of the best I’ve seen, but it still isn’t a convincing argument for the medium. I will concede that there are moments when it works, but too regularly it strays into blurriness, distracting your attention from the plot and detracting from the film. It also gave me a headache, which I’m suffering from right now.
Like Avatar before it, Hugo puts a huge emphasis on visuals. Like Avatar before it, Hugo suffers because of this. The 3D occasionally looks great, but you find yourself measuring it up, trying to figure out whether it’s adding to the experience or not. Therefore, rather than being immersed in the story, you’re constantly reminded that you’re watching film. It’s both disorientating and eventually uninteresting, and when the film keeps jumping from quaint children’s story to history lesson anyway, it’s hard to not want it to end. It’s remarkable that it goes on for over two hours, especially seeing as very little actually happens in the plot. It could’ve been fitted into an hour and a half, surely; if that were the case, I might have found it easier to retain my interest. If I was struggling, I can’t imagine how the kids in the audience felt – 3D is a distracting gimmick but not one that will keep them entertained for the full run time. One girl behind me started to talk loudly about something else towards the end, I didn’t blame her.
From an adult perspective, a major problem with Hugo is the necessity for a continued suspension of disbelief. Sometimes it’s important to allow films their artistic licence, but there is a line. To get involved in a story you have to believe it, and there are too many frustrating details contained within Hugo to allow that to happen. For example, the setting is 1930s Paris, and the film makes that excruciatingly clear via the use of berets and baguettes. However, all the actors talk in English. Surely not a problem, right? Films do this all the time, it’s widely accepted as OK. Though, you do need to create some consistency. English accents in Paris are jarring enough, but the occasional French accent being thrown into the mix is just bonkers. It also seems strange that all the writing is in French, but when they read the words they appear to translate straight into English. Why not just do it all in English? Set it in Paris, but use English speech, accents and writing. There are also some absolutely rotten parts to the script, with the occasional bit of dialogue so awful you’ll cringe deep into your seat. We’re treated to several bits of shocking self-narration, with characters apparently needing to spell out the plot for us. That’d be OK in a kids film, but as stated previously, this is trying to be a film for children and adults, without catering to either successfully.
In many households it is tradition to serve a large ham at some time over the festive period, Scorsese has saved us the trouble by frequently treating us to lashings of ham acting in several scenes. It would be harsh to blame Chloe Moretz and Asa Butterfield – clearly they struggle with the some of the green screen, but it’s a big ask for them to carry the film. Ben Kingsley and Sacha Baron Cohen don’t do any better, nor does Jude Law but at least you know what you’re going to get when he appears onscreen.
Scorsese could’ve made a kids movie, or he could’ve made a historical documentary about the genius of George Méliès. He’s done factual filmmaking before, My Voyage to Italy for example, but those are personal projects that never try to break into the mainstream. They’re enjoyable too, the musings of a man completely awed by the silver screen, but they’re history lessons, not marketed as entertainment, and they’re completely inaccessible for kids.
An overly self-indulgent film that treats cineastes like kids and kids like cineastes, Hugo is Scorsese’s attempted love letter to cinema that ends up as a load of nothingness. There’s no problem with the legendary director making a film for children, or making a homage to the movies of his own childhood, but clearly combining the two was a futile venture. He’s desperately trying to teach us here, to get us to share his passions and experiences, but ultimately they’re his personal fantasies and they don’t translate to the general audience. The ending in particular, which I believe was supposed to be emotional and touching, is silly and overly saccharine, making me want to wretch into my non-existent popcorn bucket. I’m sure it worked great in Scorsese’s mind, unfortunately it didn’t in front of my eyes. One of the worst of the year and a gigantic personal disappointment.