Martin Scorsese’s love letter to cinema, Hugo, is like most love letters – full of passion, often beautiful, yet lacking in anything resembling a cohesive narrative.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan who keeps the clocks ticking behind a train station in Paris. Why he and almost everyone around him have British accents is a mystery. I suppose every story set in days of old (yet not too old) demand British accents. Regardless, Hugo does what he needs to do in order to survive, which entails stealing food and other small items he needs to complete his project his father left him, an automaton, a mechanical man who writes with a pen and has a head just small enough to give everyone an uneasy feeling. The station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) doesn’t make Hugo’s life easy. He is determined to catch Hugo and put him in an orphanage. Inserted for comedic value, the station inspector seems like a distraction more than an integral part of the story, which is fine except for the fact that a decent portion of the film is spent on that character and his pursuit of Hugo. It’s as if someone told Scorsese he had to add some slapstick fun in his film or no child would tolerate it.
Desperate to find all the parts to get the automaton working so he can see what message his father left him, Hugo gets caught trying to steal a mechanical mouse from Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) by Méliès. He is forced to give up his notebook which contains the detailed sketches his father left of the automaton. Méliès promises to burn the book that evening and hands Hugo the ashes the next morning.
Hugo makes friends with Méliès’ god-daughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) who is desperate for adventure. It isn’t long before Hugo sneaks her into Isabelle’s first ever movie. Her godfather won’t allow her to watch films. She is mesmerized by the experience and Hugo is reminded of his father’s shared love for the cinema.
In a moment of chance Hugo discovers that Isabelle is wearing a key with a heart shaped end, which is exactly the key he needs to get his automaton working. In exchange for giving up his secret headquarters behind the walls of the train station, Isabelle allows Hugo to use the key to rev up his automaton so that he can finally see the message his father left for him. To go further is to spoil the surprise, which isn’t much of a surprise mainly because it takes numerous unnecessary twists to revel in Hugo’s true purpose, an undying love for films of old.
It’s hard to imagine a more beautifully shot film than Hugo. Every scene is masterfully shot with colors dazzling and the motion of the camera purposefully setting every moment. And yet for all its beauty, the story and characters pale in comparison. A two hour film that should be at least twenty minutes shorter without losing an ounce of its cinematic grander, Hugo still entertains even while reminding the audience that it could have been so much better.