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Hugo

[Rating: 3/5]

There seems to be a quest for a certain kind of lost movie magic in the theaters this year.  I first noticed it in “Super 8,” a pretty good movie that might have been better if it wasn’t trying to hard to be “E.T.”  (Really, it made me just want to watch “E.T.” again, and when I did, I marveled at how effortlessly that film achieved what “Super 8” was straining so hard for.) And now, I get the same feeling from Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.”  This is a film that really wants to capture that sense of childlike wonder, of magic and miracles.  It wants it so bad, it practically sweats with effort.  And as a famous fashion designer told us in the ’80s, you should never let them see you sweat.

Asa Butterfield (who looks like a young Elijah Wood) is an orphan living in a train station in Paris.  I’m not quite positive of the timeframe, but I would guess it’s the ’30s.   (Just those three elements alone – an orphan, a train station in the ’30s, and Paris – are so loaded with trope and cinematic cliché that they ought to give any film an overload of sentimentality and “movie magic.”  It’s like Scorsese is saying, in the first ten minutes, that he’s not going to hold back – at all.  This movie is meant to warm your heart, to make you cry, to make you hug your neighbor and send Christmas cards to your worst enemies, and, by golly, he’s going to pull out all the stops to make that happen.)

Back to the plot.  When he suddenly died in fire, the orphan’s father had working to repair a mysterious mechanical man he found in the attic of a museum.  His son carries on the work, but in order to do so, he must steal parts from the toy maker whose shop is in the train station.  One day the toy maker (Ben Kingsley) catches him and confiscates his notebook, which is full of diagrams and notes on the repair work.  The toy maker has an annoying granddaughter (Chloe Grace Moretz, who seems to know she’s the current “hot child actress” – she ruins almost every scene she’s in with her smugness and smirks) who is keen for adventure, so agrees to help the orphan recover his notebook and repair the mechanical man.  I don’t want to give too much away, so let me just say that in doing so, they discover that Kingsley has a secret past and is in desperate need of the kind of emotional/spiritual redemption orphans who live in trains stations are so talented at bringing about.

“Hugo” is a visual marvel.  One senses that Scorsese grasps the possibilities of 3D cinema better than anybody except James Cameron — or that he decided, in light of his remarkable career, that he wasn’t going to do a 3D movie unless he was sure he could do it right.  “Hugo” goes on my (extremely) short list of movies that are actually worth the extra price of admission and hassle with the glasses to watch in 3D.   The breathtaking visuals are probably where “Hugo” comes closest to the feeling of magic it strives for.   And, really, the tone of this piece is awfully critical, but “Hugo” is a pretty good, very enjoyable movie.  It’s just not the grand magical spectacle it sets out to be.  It feels overstuffed,  jammed with characters falling in love, finding redemption, remembering to hope, and being captured by the magic of nostalgia.  There’s just too much going on here.  And sometimes less really is more.

There’s a lot of buzz about how this story is a parable for Scorsese’s own growing up, his own story of being a sickly child who couldn’t go out and play with the other kids, so found refuge in movies.  But I wish he would’ve just told his own story instead of cramming his love for movies and their magic into a sentimental “orphan’s quest for connection” story.  The stuff about the movies – especially the Harold Lloyd and Trip to the Moon bit – are some of the best sequences in the film.  They also feel like the most effortless.  Around them are a crowd of scenes that, like “Super 8,” feel like they’re trying so hard to be magical they can barely breathe.

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