Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan boy who lives in the clock tower of a Paris train station in the 1930s and secretly keeps the clocks running. His great treasure is a clockwork handwriting automaton left to him by his father. His search to find parts to repair the automaton leads him to befriend a crusty misanthropic toy seller named Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) and his goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Sacha Baron Cohen has a role that manages to be distasteful on several different levels as a station inspector with an artificial leg.
The rather bland story centers around the revelation that the toy seller was actually a pioneering filmmaker. (This part is true. Georges Méliès probably deserves credit for inventing the fantasy film, the horror film and the fundamental techniques of special effects. And he really did end up selling toys in a Paris train station after he was driven out of business by the big French and American movie studios–although Scorsese prefers to blame his failure on the horrors of war.)
Hugo‘s great strength is in its visual imagery, much of it inspired by early silent films. I made a serious mistake here. I usually avoid watching movies in 3D since they tend to give me a headache and the special effects tend to be annoying. In this case I was told that the technology has improved and Martin Scorsese makes wonderful use of it, so I went ahead and watched it in 3D.
This was the worst 3D experience of my life. There was a persistent annoying flicker that eventually forced me to take the glasses off and watch it out-of-focus. I wasn’t the only audience member who experienced this. Either the fault was in the cheap 3D glasses handed out by the theater, or there was something wrong with the projector. In any case I am even more convinced that 3D movies are an invention of the Devil and I have no intention of watching one again.
Nevertheless this is a movie that any true film buff will want to see. (Preferably in 2D.) If you are not a film buff and have no interest in the history of cinema, it’s still a reasonably pleasant kid’s movie.
UPDATE: Philip Greenspun says that the message of the movie is “If you’re not famous, you’re nothing.” But of course that idea is so deeply embedded in Hollywood’s culture that it is surprising that we don’t see more movies expounding it.