HUGO opened up in November to middling numbers — the movie was not a runaway success, nor was it an absolute catastrophe. Recently, the academy named it a contender for Best Picture, and it holds a cool 94% on Rotten Tomatoes (and an 83 on Metacritic). Generally, the critics are right, but once in a while, a movie is championed for reasons that never appear on screen; HUGO is one of those movies.
HUGO’s greatest critical boon arrives from its subject matter: it’s a movie about movies. Not only is HUGO a movie about movies, it’s a movie about how wonderful and powerful the medium of film can be. Martin Scorsese has no trouble conveying this message, but the film suffers from how loud he shouts this message. What begins as a story of an orphan looking for his place in a world becomes a thesis on why film should be taken seriously. It would probably not come as surprise that such an idea would resonate with film critics, but it does so in a way that allows these critics to give a pass to some of HUGO’s missteps.
Critics have even searched outside of the film for praise of HUGO. Scott Tobias of the AVClub has frequently made a point to highlight the similarities between the titular character and its director. Yes, there are similarities that could be made. As a sickly child, Martin Scorsese would peer out of his apartment window at his happy peers, and he would retreat into the world of cinema to escape the depressing present. Contrast this with Hugo Cabaret, who, as an isolated orphan, watches the entirety of the train station from his clockface window. The personal connection that the director has with this character may be real, but it is quite never manifested on screen. These similarities serve as justification to praise HUGO, but it serves merely as an excuse for praise instead.
The narrative takes a turn when the protagonist takes it upon himself to set a fire in the belly of George Melies. In short bursts, Scorsese gives the audience a film history lecture, and it is during these times when we are reminded why Scorsese attached himself to this movie. He really loves this stuff, and it shows. Black and white scenes with a young George Melies recreating his imagination on film takes the audience out of the artificial train station and into a warm, fun, scrappy, black and white world. A key issue here is that it is obvious how much more fun Scorsese is having retelling the past of George Melies than dealing with any of the current times’ characters. HUGO is a vehicle for Scorsese to tell this beautiful lost story, but this means that the outer shell — the colorful, shiny world of Hugo Cabaret — is something we (the audience and the director) need to sit through to get there.
This shiny vehicle, perhaps purposefully, is too well-crafted; its characters all wear perfectly wardrobed costumes, their hair is perfectly kept (or at times, perfectly unkempt). The story and setting all take place in France, but it seems that Chloe Moretz is the only actor attempting a French accent; most everyone else sounds vaguely European. These touches may be calculated; the material that serves the film was originally purposed as a children’s novel. The world that Scorsese presents is taken out of a storybook, where everything looks to be out of a painting, and all the characters use dialogue that works better on a page that in the air. Contrast this with the near-reckless abandon that George Melies uses to make his movies, and it makes for a mostly uneven viewing experience. The sense of wonder that most people speak of when referring to HUGO doesn’t come from HUGO, it comes from George Melies.
Almost everything that goes wrong with HUGO can be found in its opening scene; the camera drifts into a train station, and the audience is taken through a long, sure-handed single-take shot through the busy trains’ terminal. While this scene is a great piece of technical filmmaking, it’s a gimmick. The scene would never work without the use of 3D, and it relies on you to be taken by this long, busy shot. The ultimate problem is that nothing in the shot feels real; all of the extras look as if they were hired to bump into each other and look busy, the trains look brand new and have no sense of wear, the architecture and upkeep of the train station is immaculate. Everything is perfect, but it all lacks humanity. This sense of falseness follows through to HUGO’s final moments, which feel so cold and calculated, it is as artificial as the 3D snowflakes present in virtually every take.
So much of HUGO rings false, but it is important to note that it is not a terrible movie; it’s not even close to being a bad movie. It’s just an average movie. HUGO is well-made, but its intentions have biased those who critique film. HUGO looks to the past for its inspiration, but it also looks forward; the use of 3D and filmmaking techniques that would be impossible only years ago (like the opening scene) gives the audience something other than nostalgia. If the story of George Melies were substituted with the story of a retired school teacher that Hugo helps to rediscover his love for teaching, HUGO would not be sitting at its 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Sometimes, it seems, the critics get it wrong.