Hugo could have been more boring if Martin Scorsese had directed it from a chair attached by bolts to the shoulders of a brain-damaged Tom Hanks, like a cinematic Master Blaster of schmaltz. Twenty minutes in I started fidgeting, looking around at the other bougies packed in the theater, wondering if I was in the wrong film. Nay, the wrong skin. I’d read Hugo‘s ecstatic reviews, and heard Scorsese waxing poetic re: 3D on NPR. The premise—an orphan who winds the clocks between the walls of a post-war Parisian train station brings a robot to life, and accidentally befriends real life filmmaker Georges Méliès—seemed promising. But Hugo fetishizes instead of reveals the beauty of its subjects. Clocks, trains, machines, silent movies, and all manner of other steampunk knickknacks brindle brightly to melodic accordion music throughout Hugo, but the story never pushes them past the level of prop. I went in expecting steak and vegetables, salad and wine, cake and ice cream, but got a cotton candy buffet, and exited the theater with a stomach ache in my soul.
Hugo presents filmmaking not as porous, but implacable. Would that a story about the magic of visual storytelling had had a good story to tell itself. The never-ending army of precious objects—heart-shaped locks, flower girls, mechanical mice, blue-eyed children with British accents, blueprints, sketches, automatons, glimpses of le Tour Eiffel—all seemed summoned to underscore an obscure art history lesson: remember this director (who is actually interesting, but whose Wikipedia page is conveys more of why than the movie). Scorsese attempt to exalt art, imagination, adventure, etc; but in pursuit of these ideals, his heroes pay no price. Without stakes, the scenes are leaden, and the theme yawns on: in the adoration of precious surfaces stuffed with good intentions, a piety as dull as it is cheap can be achieved. The beautiful logic of what the clocks mean, how they or any of the other props surprises us, is beside the point if they are shiny, and everything is shot in friscalating 3D™ dusklight, and “celebrates imagination.” It’s haunting to me that a movie supposedly so sincere about art making climaxes at an awards ceremony. Remember that scene in Toy Story 3 where the toys, faced with their imminent meltdown into magma, turn to one another, then decide to hold hands, lest they face death alone? Nothing anywhere near that real or human happens here.