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Hugo
Genre Adventure
 
Review:

Hugo is a well-oiled machine that lacks heart and soul. Primed as a family adventure in the style of City of Ember, this Parisian tale looks magical, backed by a solid cast, a fascinating story and a powerful director. However, despite the best intentions - the atmosphere is stilted, the charm is stunted and Hugo relies too heavily on its beauty to carry the story.

Child stars, Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz, do an amazing job as co-leads. You could say that their performances are a little too constrained, never cutting loose, acting as if they're always in the presence of adults. Yet, their circumstances permit them to be a little more reserved than their peers - something of a commonality shared between the characters.

The supporting ensemble is made up of Ben Kingsley and Sacha Baron Cohen with accomplished actors such as Christopher Lee, Jude Law, Ray Winstone, Richard Griffiths and Emily Mortimer filling in the smaller roles. Kingsley's take on Georges Méliès is good, playing a young and older version of the renowned director. Sacha Baron Cohen's depiction of the Station Inspector was a bit strained - trying to capture Peter Sellers as The Pink Panther as if the part was written for Jermaine Clement.

There are one or two light-hearted moments, but nothing near as delightful and funny as the writers would've expected. Many of the characters seem to have been directed to slow their dialogue in the style of David Lynch. Perhaps this was to achieve a more surreal atmosphere? It doesn't work... just creating a more sluggish feel to the already old-fashioned movie pacing.

While Butterfield and Moretz have buttoned down their roles, but Hugo really needed a stand out performance to hang on. The ensemble all muster a good level of performance, but the charm and magic is missing from these characters. The close-ups of Butterfield create a false sense of intimacy with the character and while a beautiful child, it just isn't the same without the talents of a young Haley Joel Osment or Freddie Highmore.

Martin Scorsese's Hugo is a blend of Cinema Paradiso, Oliver Twist and Shadow of a Vampire. All critically-acclaimed in their own right, these influences stamp the film with Oscar-worthiness, which is probably why it garnered 11 nominations. Scorsese brings his wealth of experience, directing possibly his first family feature film, after making something of a detour into horror with Shutter Island.

The Cinema Paradiso influence is experienced in the theme. Instead of a boy learning the inner workings of an old cinema in a small village, he's taken to the cogs and mechanisms of clocks at a grand train station in Paris. The love for cinema seeps into the picture as the mystery surrounding a message from his father unfurls.

The Oliver Twist connection is expressed largely through Hugo and his relationship with the Station Inspector and train station. A disheveled orphan who steals is enough of a parallel with Dickens' Oliver Twist, which is padded by his cat-and-mouse games with Isabelle, a derivative of Wendy from Peter Pan.

Shadow of a Vampire may seem like a strange influence for a family film like Hugo, but this aspect is demonstrated by the story involving Georges Méliès. Instead of a reimagining of F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu we're given a behind-the-scenes education of influential turn-of-the-century filmmaker, Georges Méliès. The director is probably best known for Le voyage dans la lune, Voyage to the Moon - a short film popularised Tonight, Tonight by The Smashing Pumpkins and deserves his own film.

Scorsese's filmography is grounded in reality, tending towards the crime genre. In Hugo, a film that almost demanded he dabble in fantasy, the director has rooted the film in history. There are one or two dream sequences, which allow him to create a tension between the real and unreal, but these are few and far between. The element of fantasy is embedded in the style of film-making itself, without ever letting go of the balloon.

The choice to shoot the film in English was obviously a marketing decision, but one only has to refer to any scene from Cinema Paradiso to get the rich layered feel that the language adds to the authenticity and culture. Hugo's English-speaking characters don't resonate with the location, diluting the magic of Paris.

Hugo is beautifully composed, tying several strands of story together to create a mystery that will appeal to most audiences. The performances are more than competent, delivered by a strong ensemble of name actors. The mis-en-scene is a moving and mesmerising artwork - delivering high production value with detailed sets, wardrobe and props.

It's just a shame that the atmosphere wasn't more fluid. Never mind the ticking clocks, the stale air scenes remind you of your watch and the delivery of dialogue drags the editing. The intentional moments of levity aren't fully realised. These factors loosen the grip of this magpie story and forces you to keep re-focusing on the eye candy.

When blockbuster films such as Hugo get so much right, it's always disheartening when the inner workings stunt the production from reaching its full potential. Scorsese delivers a picture that oozes with quality... making it disappointing that they weren't able to sustain the flicker of life that could have added more heart and soul to all the shimmering beauty.

The bottom line: Dazzling

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