Paramount Pictures/Press Image
Well, this is unexpected: marketed as if it were a saccharine Chris Columbus joint, Martin Scorsese’s eye-popping kids-lit adaptation turns out to be a bizarrely two-headed beast. Let’s start with the more interesting coconut: As $170 million essay films about Georges Méliès go, you can hardly do better.
A wonderful Ben Kingsley plays the illusionist-cum-moviemaker who made a reported five hundred features, including 1902’s seminal silent A Trip to the Moon, before going bankrupt during WWI. Méliès ended up running a toy shop in the Paris Montparnasse train station, which is the primary setting of Scorsese’s 3-D feature (certainly one of the finest uses of the format).
It’s in this locale, where even the nooks and crannies appear to have nooks and crannies, that we catch up with Méliès in his bitter dotage circa 1931. Unfortunately, it’s also where the film’s other, more perfunctory plot strand plays out.
Méliès isn’t really the star of the story, though it’s clear from several documentary-like montages and a few loving flashback re-creations of the director at work that Scorsese is most interested in him. This is largely the tale of an orphaned boy, Hugo Cabret (Butterfield, bland), who attempts to solve the mystery of a mechanical man bequeathed to him by his deceased father. Méliès is connected to this enigmatic automaton, as is the bookish sidekick (Moretz) who befriends Hugo because she longs for adventure. But childlike whimsy doesn’t suit Scorsese; he’d rather sit Hugo to the side and school him (and us) in silent-film colour-tinting instead of playing out the slapsticky daddy-issues narrative (begone, Sacha Baron Cohen!). You still can’t help admiring the project’s ambition; an odd combo of Babe: Pig in the City and Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma, Hugo is the strangest bird to grace the multiplex in a while.
By Keith Uhlich