At once a rollicking 3D kids’ movie and an impassioned lecture about film history, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, adapted from Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, ranks among the most unusual endeavors in the director’s long and storied career. Alas, it also ranks among the least successful, mostly because those two flavors don’t mingle terribly well. That early cinema pioneer Georges Méliès, best known for his 1902 short “A Trip to the Moon,” deserves more attention is inarguable, but I’m not convinced that two hours of flamboyant CGI swooping in three dimensions is the testament he deserves.
Part of the problem is that Hugo’s story is a non-starter—little more than a belabored framework for the few moments that actually matter. Wide-eyed orphan Hugo (Asa Butterfield) secretly maintains the clocks at a Paris train station, occasionally swiping mechanical parts from a bitter old man (Ben Kingsley) who runs a toy shop on the ground floor. With the help of the old man’s ward (Chloë Grace Moretz) and notes from his late father (a cameo by Jude Law), Hugo eventually discovers that the toymaker is in fact a legendary filmmaker, long believed dead. Flashbacks to Méliès and his wife (Helen McCrory) creating cinema’s first special-effects extravaganzas ensue, along with a great deal of moist rhapsodizing about movie magic.
Would that there were more magic evident in the framing story. If Méliès were alive and working today, he might well be merrily sending his camera flying through virtual sets just like these; nonetheless, it’s depressing to see a Scorsese picture that looks more or less exactly like the one you’d get from Steven Spielberg or Robert Zemeckis or anybody else who’s largely handed the reins over to the tech guys. And with the agreeably bizarre exception of Sacha Baron Cohen as a station inspector emasculated (at least figuratively, perhaps literally) by a war wound, the people onscreen are all hollow puppets. That the film’s most potent image is an automaton, or mechanical man, staring blankly at the lens is no accident.