We have got to stop pity-f*cking Martin Scorsese. Yes, it's a tragedy that his greatest work was snubbed by the Academy in his prime, but after tossing him a bone with The Departed, there seems to have been an overcompensation of praise for dreck like Shutter Island and the exquisitely-designed, but wonderless Hugo. Let's be honest: If his name wasn't in the credits, neither of these works would've been acclaimed and/or nominated.
Hugo is the story of a little orphaned boy named Jimmy (j/k) who lives in the walls of a Paris train station in 1931, filling his days by winding and maintaining all the clocks and subsisting by pilfering food and clock parts to repair a mysterious automaton his father was repairing when he died. Hugo constantly needs to artfully dodge station inspector Borat, I mean Sacha Baron Cohen (attempting an Inspector Clouseau vibe, not very well), and Ben Kingsley, a toy shop owner who knows Hugo's been nicking clock parts from his shop. Hugo meets Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), the ward of Ghandi who conveniently has a key part - as in a key proper - to the mysterious robot.
The fundamental problem with Hugo is that Scorsese is ill-suited for the children's movie tone he's going for. In the extras it's revealed that one of his primary reasons for making it was that he had a 12-year-old daughter who hadn't seen any of his movies because they're all hardcore R-rated flicks for grown-ups, but I can't imagine a child being engaged by the slow plotting which wanders without much forward motion until it diverts into a paean to revolutionary filmmaker Georges Méliès who has an easy-to-spot-waaaaaaay-early connection to the story. Much of the overpraise has been because of these parts and about the "magic of the movies" but it simply didn't feel magical to me; it's the Marty Effect in action. Another tonal problem is Borat's shown chasing down the orphans in his train station and handing them over to the police as the villain, but there are several vignettes of him trying to ask flower girl Emily Mortimer out. Which is he - heavy or bumbling loverboy?
The material simply doesn't fit Scorsese, just like when James Cameron tried to channel Steven Spielberg's knack for wonder with the alien aspects of The Abyss. I tell people who've never seen it before, "When Ed Harris defuses the nuke, stop the movie; it's done. If you keep watching, you'll just wonder WTF?" for a reason - Cameron, for all his brilliance simply can't pull of glowing jellyfish aliens of super-superior nature. A marital breakup drama AND a heavy metal actioner about a Navy SEAL (literally) cracking under pressure? Hell yeahs! But the E.T. stuff? Nope.
As unsatisfying as I found Hugo's story, it is a visual feast. I didn't see it in 3D, but this is a good reason to buy Blu-rays and large TVs. The colors and details are lush and the obviously digitally enhanced environments actually contribute to the dreamlike quality of the film. Anyone who watches this and still doesn't appreciate the benefits of six times the resolution of DVD needs their eyes checked.
My girlfriend wondered if Georges Méliès was a real person - which was a bit of a shock - but all I had to do is switch to the featurette about him which shows a bunch of clips from his films and details how the depiction of him in the film was true-to-life. I found myself wishing they'd made a straight-up movie about him and skipped all the claptrap about the kid. There are also interesting featurettes about real automatons, the making-of the film, and how one of the special effects sequences was done. What's missing is a more extensive look at the use of digital sets and FX to create the world. This video was part of an item on Wired and there is zero reason it shouldn't have been included on the disc.
Sumptuous on the eyes, but empty in the head and heart, Hugo is well-intentioned, but falls like a shaken souffle.
Score: 4/10. Rent the Blu-ray.