Although it should come as no surprise that director Martin Scorsese has little facility for sentimental child-centered Franco-whimsy, it’s hard not to wish he had made a more interesting attempt than Hugo.
Set in early 20th century Paris but populated by actors with British and American accents, Hugo includes all the standard elements of a classically conventional children’s story. Precocious, neglected and family-craving orphan, check. Comically intimidating authority figure, check. Bitterly cranky adult primed to have his cynical heart melted, check. And, of course, a little bit of magic — this time in the form of a mysterious clockwork “automaton” with a not-exactly-subtle heart-shaped keyhole in his back.
But although all of the pieces are here, the contraption Scorsese assembles from them doesn’t work — even if it is undeniably gorgeous. The lushly elaborate production design by Dante Ferretti (Sweeney Todd) is on a par with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s more colorfully baroque fantasies (Amélie, The City of Lost Children, Delicatessen).
Yearningly innocent Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is more of a sad-eyed survivor than a spunky smartass, which is good, but he’s also a bit of a blank slate. His mother already was dead when his museum-worker father (Jude Law) was killed in a fire. Yanked out of school and forced to help his drunken Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) tend train station clocks, Hugo has been living on his own since that Uncle drowned in the Seine. Hugo now shoplifts food to survive and must avoid capture by vigilant station inspector Gustav (the effortlessly scene-stealing Sacha Baron Cohen), who rudely dispatches unattended children to the orphanage.
Hugo hopes that repairing a child-sized mechanical man his father once found in a museum attic will let him receive a spirit-world message from departed dad. Which is kind of a reach, but hey, kids will be kids. He has been swiping parts from a gloomy toy seller, whose daughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) becomes a sympathetic friend.
Scorsese’s love of film history manifests itself in several distracting early-cinema asides that are more educational than entertaining. What’s odd is that this story element, although taken directly from Brian Selznick’s source novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is so unnecessary to the screenplay it feels like plot padding. The grumpy toy seller played by Ben Kingsley, later revealed to be a real-life film-industry pioneer who has fallen on hard times, could just as well have been a mere frustrated inventor. That would have kept the movie from losing focus, especially during an awkwardly lengthy final-act detour into the Kingsley character’s background.
Scorsese’s first PG film since 1993’s The Age of Innocence is easier to admire than to enjoy. Unlike Hugo the boy, Hugo the movie never finds the right heart-shaped key.
[Rating: 3 stars]