Back in 2007, on my twelfth birthday, my grandparents presented me with a spellbinding book entitled The Invention of Hugo Cabret. A picture book/novel written by Brian Selznick, it tells the story of a twelve-year-old boy living by himself within the walls of a Paris train station during the 1930s. The mystifying story that follows includes a whole menagerie of peculiar incidents, involving a mysterious old man, a wind-up toy in the shape of a human being, and the silent magic of machinery and the cinema. It truly is a mesmerizing piece of art, and relies largely on the use of drawings to tell its story. Reading the book is like watching a silent movie, and makes for an unforgettable experience that is nothing short of magical.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one to feel enraptured by this book, as now the giant of American cinema, Martin Scorsese, has decided to present for us an adaptation of Selznick’s book, converted somewhat generically into a 3-D adventure by the name of Hugo.
First of all, I must make the point that I am usually turned off by the “movie-wasn’t-as-good-as-the-book” argument, and I’ll explain why. Movies and literature are two very different things; a book works heavily on interior thought, whereas a movie is built around imagery and exterior action. Now, given the uncommon circumstances of the source material – which, as I mentioned, is a story largely told through pictures – should give justice to the assumption that one would find its movie adaptation to be close in both style and feel. Yet most of the book’s edge – its darkness and sense of mystery – is gone in this adaptation, although for a children’s film it does feature some refreshingly multi-layered adult characters.
Not only this, but the film is extremely well-made with an exquisite production value. There is a real sense of winter here, and the city of Paris never looked more alive in all its computer-generated glory.
But, alas – can’t a film just ever be great? For here we have Hugo, and we watch him suffer; from the memory of his deceased father to ever-imposing threat of the Station Inspector… to the boy’s quiet search for a purpose in life. And yet really, who cares? There’s no reason to particularly like Hugo Cabret with his ever-trembling chin and sad blue eyes, just as there is no reason to care for much of anything else that goes on. As result, the first half of the film is at times painfully slow, and it is only at the point when the magic-of-the-movies theme kicks in that Martin Scorsese clearly begins to have a good time. Indeed, the scenes of George Melies and his days of making movies is when Hugo finally takes on a magical feel, and proves that Mr. Scorsese perhaps does his best work when he is able to endorse the films that made him fall in love with the cinema.
Finally, the 3-D phenomenon is just getting to be too much. I understand if Mr. Scorsese grew up with 3-D movies and wants to express his nostalgia, but he is still Martin Scorsese, and should not relent to the cheapness of it. If anything, 3-D distracts you from any lack of content that a film may have – and with its rather typical approach to an above-average children’s book, Hugo is perhaps better off with all the distractions it can muster. You want a magical time? Buy the book – it will prove far more rewarding than this pretty if largely unimpressive venture.