Oscar Blindspots: Hugo

Before we get done with 2021, I’ll be catching up on all the Oscar nominees and winners I have missed from the year 2011

A child-focused fantasy film doesn’t seem like the strong suit for Martin Scorsese, but with Hugo, the director weaves in a severe love of film and how important the preservation of film is. It all comes together as a sweet and fanciful story of a young boy and the family he desperately seeks.

Asa Butterfield stars as the titular Hugo Cabret, an orphaned boy who lives and works in the Paris train station in 1931. Hugo’s daily activities include winding the various clocks in the station while avoiding the clutches of Station Inspector Gustave Daste (Sacha Baron Cohen). In his spare time, Hugo tinkers with various mechanics, including an automaton – a mechanical man created to write with a pen.

In order to repair the automaton, Hugo takes parts from a toy shop. One day, he is caught by the shop’s owner Georges (Ben Kingsley) who takes his notebook and threatens to destroy it. In his quest to get it back, Hugo interacts with George’s goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). Together, Isabelle and Hugo are able to repair the automaton which gives new insight into the person George really was.

Hugo becomes obsessed with the idea of what the automaton means and its purpose. The young man finds broken toys to be a sad reminder of lost purpose and it also reconnects him with his dead father. Meanwhile, George lives a life devoid of remembering the past due to the pain it originally caused him. The two worldviews collide between the young and the old.

Film and film preservation is paramount to the film’s themes. George is discovered to be legendary silent film director Georges Méliès. The older and jaded George wants no memories of his time in films or whether or not the films themselves even still exist. With Hugo’s help, the films are eventually rediscovered, which leads to a series of wonderful asides about Méliès’ filmmaking history and the effect it had on the world.

Butterfield gives one of the better child performances in recent memory. His character is the primary focus of the majority of the film, despite the attention paid to George. Not only does Butterfield command the screen, but he also does a fine job of acting like a child, despite the non-childlike responsibilities he has to shoulder. Moretz’s role is more of a plot device than a character, though her precociousness never wears like you would expect.

Kinglsey gets the bulk of the dramatic work and he excels. Starting as a cruel cynic and evolving into the once vibrant force, Georges’ acquiescence to Hugo’s ideas is the film’s driving force. Helen McCrory plays Georges’ wife and exudes the warmth to undercut Kingsley’s initial harshness. Their chemistry is a welcome sight. Cohen is used mostly for comedic fodder, but his characterization is well-rounded enough that it is at least explainable. Other famous faces like Jude Law, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Christopher Lee round out this overly talented supporting cast.

The craft elements of the film simultaneously lift the film and hold it back. While the production design, cinematography, and special effects are all top-notch, it all feels a little too much. This is a fairly simple story with simple ideas, but the film is tuned up to a degree that can occasionally distract from the plot at hand. While Scorsese does a fine job with all his actors, the film feels over-directed outside of those performances.

Hugo is a fun-filled and sentimental adventure that shows the magical properties of film and the relationships it creates. While it is a very good film, it might seem a little overblown for 11 Oscar nominations and five wins.

Next week: Terrence Malick has one of his most successful films in The Tree of Life

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