Hugo: A Bad Review

Last weekend, we went to see Hugo. I came out of it convinced that it was a good film, if not as fun to watch as The Muppets has been a few days before. Upon further reflection and discussion with friends, I have concluded that it's... actually not that great at all, and professional film critics be damned. Allow me to explain the many reasons why. (There be spoilers below; don't read on it you don't want to see them.)

The 3D. We chose to see Hugo in 3D, figuring Scorsese must surely be a master of cinema and do it right. I regretted it almost immediately. The film began with a painful and dizzying sequence of sideways tracking shots where the focus was meant to be on the middle ground, instead of the foreground. Objects came on and off screen much too quickly for the eyes to adjust. The 3D integration improved as the film went on, but it did not start out on the right foot at all. 

The Pacing. Oh my good heavens, the pacing. So many long and dull shots of Hugo making his way through clockwork tunnels! The goal of this was, I suppose, to give a feeling of scope to the set, but there was so much of it, it went on so long, and it was so very boring. Even beyond that, the pacing was abysmally slow. It was a long time before the film manifested a plot, and the core of what the movie was about didn't start until I was convinced it should really start wrapping up any time now. And my tolerance for slow pacing had been set inaccurately by... 

The Marketing. It eventually became clear that Hugo was in no way the film I'd been sold on. I came in with no knowledge of the book. I therefore thought I was paying to see a steampunky adventure film about a boy's search for his lost father, not an arthouse fictionalization of the history of film. The audiences interested in these things are... not the same.

The Writing. The scripts smacks of being written by committee, or else very poorly edited. Large swaths of the film are either inadequately explained or have no real significance to the story as a whole. The character of Isabelle winds up being an empty shell, present purely to move plot and give Hugo somebody sympathetic to converse with. We're also treated to long sequences starring the bookseller, whose sole narrative function is to direct the children to a film library that they could reasonably have found another way; if there were an emotional function for this character, it didn't work.

And key information was breezed over -- the fact that Hugo's uncle had gone missing, something that would help tremendously at illuminating the stakes for poor Hugo early on, is only mentioned in a single line midway through the film. It would have been easy to entirely miss the significance of it even then.

The Emotional Performances. Papa Georges was angry. So, so angry! Something terrible must have happened to him! What could it possible have been? For a long time, I was convinced it must be foul play of some kind -- something to explain why Isabelle was living with her grandparents. Such an over-the-top grief must be because of the death of a child, surely. It must take something so extreme to explain why Papa George was such an asshole to a child for simply reminding him of the past! But no, he's just upset because of that one time he had to go out of business.

You can make an argument that his attitude is justified because Hugo had been stealing things from him to begin with; but from a big-picture creative point of view, the end goal is to make Papa Georges and his grief sympathetic. The film created no sympathy for him in me whatsoever. He was an asshole and a tyrant as the film painted him, and I'd have been just as happy to see him live out his days in obscurity.

And on Hugo's end, his silence regarding his father's notebook was inexplicable and unconvincing. He's willing to stalk somebody home, willing to throw snow to lure a stranger out of her house, but he can't say "That's my father's notebook." Riiight. This might have been slightly more plausible if the film audience had been informed that the uncle had gone missing by this point. But actually, I'm not sure even that would have helped. The whole film is predicated on a secret that Hugo has no well-conveyed motivation to keep.

The Heavy-Handedness and Repetition. This was not a subtle film. How many trains coming into the station did we see? How many times did a rocket strike the face of the moon? Some repetition is, I suppose, a method of supporting theme. But surely thematic payload should be handled more softly. I felt the film was going out of its way to try to prove it was Art, at the expense of actual artistry. I shouldn't be left rolling my eyes: "You showed this to me already three times, why am I seeing the same clip of film again?"

And the film was trying to be Educational, at the expense of -- well -- everything. Did you catch the part in the middle of the film where suddenly, instead of even watching a slow, French-style film about a sad orphan boy, you're shoved into a short documentary about the history of film? If backstory and exposition were done so gracelessly in a book, you'd throw it at the wall and never pick it up again.

In conclusion: I feel like this is a film that lovers of film would have affection for, because it caters to people who happen to love film history to begin with. It's full of references and secret handshakes, perhaps. But as a story on its own merits, it falls short. To be sure, it does become interesting and even a little exciting toward the end; but by then it's far too late.

See The Muppets instead, my friends. It's a lot more fun, the writing and pacing are significantly better, and you'll at the very least go in with a pretty good idea of what you're going to get.