Published on November 22nd, 2011 | by Jordan Petersen0
As the lights went down and we all donned our 3D glasses, I leaned over to the friend on my right to verify that yes, though it has been quite some time since I’ve seen a 3D movie, I still really hate it.
I hate the way it gathers in the image so that a satisfyingly wide screen seems more like a big screen in your living room. I hate the way you have to hold you head just so to prevent the images from getting funky. And I hate hate hate wearing those stupid glasses on my face. In a world where aesthetics and comfort have come to be the hallmarks of our strongest and most innovative businesses, it is unforgivable that this “new” technology still demands such uncomfortable absurdity.
I didn’t get to say any of this though, because the friend on my left — a fellow film student — shushed me, explaining, “it’s Scorsese.”
Of course, I thought. The man deserves my respect, and film reverence itself dictated that I bear my discomfort privately. After all, it was bound to be a great film despite its obvious encumberment. And voila! There went the breathless rush of the first shot, taking us soaring brilliantly through a meticulously envisioned Parisian train station right out of a children’s book. It was beautiful.
That may have been the best moment of the whole movie, coming as it did, before I was required to somehow negotiate the staggeringly well-wrought production design with the painfully disappointing dialogue and execution of the story.
This film is a great advertisement for Pixar, as are all of the other condescending, obvious and cloying “family” movies that come out these days. It seems like Pixar (with the significant exception of Cars 2) houses the only writers who don’t seem to assume children are deeply stupid and need every last scrap of story, humor and character spoon fed to them.
Hugo was also too long by at least a half hour. In other words, that half hour could have been comfortably extracted without hurting the story at all. A more aggressive editor probably could have shaved off another ten minutes and really gotten the thing humming. But, alas, I was bored and judging by the spirit of the packed theater both during and after the film, I wasn’t alone.
The kid-protagonists didn’t help things. We know Chloë Grace Moretz (Isabelle, Hugo’s side-kick/love interest) can act when she’s got good material. But her character here is a generic bookworm who wants “an adventure” and seems content to wait around for one — and pleased as peaches when it saunters by. Asa Butterfield (Hugo), on the other hand, may be a relatively talentless young actor, or Scorsese may just be crummy at directing children. Either way (and I suspect it’s both), all he manages to deliver are series of facial twitches with varying frequency.
The film is not without its redemptive qualities. As I mentioned earlier, the production design was almost numbingly good. A visual feast in an exquisitely textured space. In boredom, my eyes wandered, soaking in what was inevitably the most interesting thing about each scene: the set. And there was one sequence that may have made the whole mess worth the trouble. A welcome departure from the plodding clichés that comprised the main story, the film’s ultimate tribute to Georges Méliès transported the audience to a world at once nostalgic and mystical; silly and grand. I may end up owning this film for that sequence alone.
It seems the fate of all great filmmakers is to one day become self-indulgent and over-confident, especially when they venture into the underestimated difficulties of telling stories to younger audiences. They seem to inevitably make the same frustrating mistakes. But for all of their self-handicapping and feverish pursuit of “cutting edge” gimmicks (read: 3D!), their genius still pokes through every now and again. And one can only assume that Méliès himself would have been deeply honored by this heartfelt homage from a fellow dreamer. ♦ ♦ ♦
Jordan Petersen is SOUND’s resident sensei of all things movie-related. Recently graduated from Brigham Young University, he is now working towards a Master’s degree in film at Boston University. Check out Jordan’s filmmaking blog at twentyoneninety.blogspot.com.