If nothing else, Hugo is a departure from the characteristic Martin Scorsese film. George Melies (Ben Kingsley) is not whacked by a bullet in the back of the head. The Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) does not pass out from smoking too much pot and forget to get rid of the getaway truck. No one is insulted because of a shine box and no one oversells their role as if they were Jack Nicholson in The Departed. At the same time, I’m not sure if Hugo isn’t too much of a departure.
The film itself is beautiful – even without the 3D spectacle. The colors are alternately muted and vibrant, and, at times, the characters are sketched with noticeable black outlines, as if they are cells placed on background. However, this is not distracting; rather, it’s majestic and recalls a simpler time in film. Juxtaposed with the 3D gimmick and some of the most probably CGI’d effects, this anachronistic style elucidates the similar magic and narratives throughout the entirety of film, despite technological advancements and achievements.
At the same time, the imagery that astounds hardly whitewashes the pallid story. Like The Artist, 2011’s other tribute to earlier cinema, Hugo offers more fodder than depth. The characters, and their barely subdermal metaphors, are nearly transparent. In a sense, this is effective as a tribute to the notion that thematic constructs were more apparent in the past; however, this assumption is flawed. While the classic cinema reels we’re privy to are the comical, jovial silent films that offer buggy eyes and wide grins, Melies’ films were not always magical drifts into fantasy. This tactic, if it is accurate, is doubly jeopardized when the viewer contemplates the inherent investigation of the evolution of cinema – which also portends the evolution of the viewer. Hugo is a tribute to cinema, but it also seems to forget about its viewer for a moment. Stories need not be convoluted to the point of inaccessibility, but Hugo‘s plot points are set up like a domino waiting to be toppled by a foreseeable agent as opposed to puzzle pieces uncovered in a narrative spectrum. It’s sweet and it’s cute, but it’s a plate of petit fours, not a meal.
To be fair, a genuinely cloying film can still work, and I still smiled while watching the inevitable on screen, but I’m also reminded of Shutter Island. My dislike for the 2010 film stems not simply from its predictability and silliness, but its guise as an homage to a B-movie. As cult-classics or favorites, B-movies have their place, but Scorsese’s hardly elevated the pulpy shtick to a new level; rather, he made a B-movie that just happened to contain a few Academy Award nominated actors. In other words, a B-movie made like a B-movie is still a B-movie and should be recognized as such.
The same rings true for Hugo, though, to be fair, this film did not leave me wallowing in regret. At the same time, there was plenty of spectacle, but little groundbreaking; so, simply playing off the simplicity of earlier films doesn’t elevate those films to high art – even by illustrating similarities in the seemingly disparate incarnation (i.e. the train); instead, it creates a simple film with overly repeated allusions to automatons and “place.” Yes, we are gears in a clock. We are widgets working an assembly line. We are cogs in the United States of Capitalism, but the overt statement is shallow, and themes like this have been tackled better, with more humor – and a touch more ominousness – in films like Modern Times or novels like The Big Clock. The writhing current underneath this stagnancy is never exposed. They churn silently until a happy ending emerges. Perhaps it was safer to maintain a surface level inspection. The film is PG after all, which means it was guaranteed from the start to draw droves of children and adolescences in tandem with adults. However, films can mix politics and magic — The Muppets is a fine examples of how this can be done without overtly pandering to different demographics.
In the end, Hugo is charming and brings a smile to the viewer’s face and a few tears to the eyes, but it offers little substance, and this is a bit disappointing. It’s no Avatar in that the story is not completely elided in favor of visual masturbation, but the story that’s told seems to want to be deeper than it is. Unfortunately, its “place” is relegated to the surface of the shallow.