Welcome to another installment of Silents in Talkies. In this series, I review sound movies that are either about the silent era or that incorporate silent films into their story. I will review the film itself and then briefly discuss whether the film helped or harmed public perception of the silent era.
This time, we are going to be taking a look at Hugo, a love letter to the silent era directed by notable silent cinema aficionado, Martin Scorsese.
2011-2012 was quite the award season for silent fans. The two movies in top running for the best picture statuette were Hugo, a celebration of silent film, and The Artist, which actually was a silent film. Of course, The Artist danced away with the top prize but that doesn’t make Hugo any less worthy of attention.
(And, since someone is bound to ask, I found The Artist to be quite charming and the nit-picking criticisms that some silent fans have leveled against it to be annoying in the extreme. I’m not talking about people with actual intelligent concerns about plot and acting, etc. I mean the folks who dismiss the whole film because, say, Bérénice Bejo’s lip line was not properly Cupid’s bow-ish or, heaven forbid, a “cute” movie may actually get an Oscar. And do not get me started on Kim Novak’s tacky, tasteless and mean tantrum. Just don’t.)
So, was this embarrassment of riches worthy of attention? Even for non-fans of the silents? (Non-fans? Where are they? I’ll murderize them!) Or were these two films only going to appeal to people who know the difference between Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Novarro and will happily talk your ear off for an our explaining why these men were very different and Novarro wasn’t really a Latin Lover as he did better in films that… Hey, where are you going?
Hugo tells the tale of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who winds the clocks at the Paris train station. He dreams of completing the restoration of a mysterious automaton, a project he had been working on with his father before tragedy struck.
The train station is populated and manned by eccentrics. There is the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who is determined to catch our hero. There is Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), a toy vendor who is assisted by Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz).
Hugo befriends Isabelle and together they try to unravel the mystery of the automaton and the past of the mysterious Georges Méliès.
One advantage modern films have over the classics is the quality of child performers. I am not a fan of the Shirley Temple duckface expression (“Gee, Mr. Indian, why do you gotta attack the cavalry that’s just tryin’ ta take you on the Trail of Tears? I think that’s awful mean.”) and the simpering, over-rehearsed manner of most Golden Age child stars. (My! I am in a bad mood today!) Simply put, when they appear onscreen, I want to throw things. (Child stars in the silent era were much, much better. And Our Gang. Love those little rascals.)
Butterfield and Moretz are quite charming as the tween leads. In fact, I would describe both their performances as top-notch. They are endearing and delightful without descending into the trap of twee. Ben Kingsley is splendid as the gruff and heart-broken Méliès. In fact, all of the performances in Hugo are of the very best. I was also glad to see veteran actors like Christopher Lee and the late Richard Griffiths in supporting roles.
On the minus side, Hugo is 126 minutes long and the story really could have been told in about 80-90 minutes. Run-time bloat is one of my biggest objections to modern sound cinema and Hugo is the perfect example of what I mean. A few sweeping crane shots cut, a few staring scenes dropped and we would have had a tight, tidy little movie.
On the same subject, Hugo is also the victim of its own budget. Frankly, it was just too expensive for what it was. While the design is lovely, I once again must argue in favor of a smaller, more intimate scale. You see, expensive movies are often hampered by the sheer amount of money spent. I mean, if you shell out tens of millions for an elaborate set, you sure as heck are going to be showing it off. However, scale almost always comes at the expense of the characters.
I must emphasize, though, that I liked the movie very much overall. I just felt that it could have benefited from some cost cutting and editing. This should have been an art house film and it does not benefit from being stretched into a blockbuster.
Hugo was not the box office smash it deserved to be. In my opinion, its marketing campaign was to blame. Because the movie was so big and expensive, the previews and posters pushed the adventure angle instead of the character angle. Look, I understand that the clock poster was a tribute to Safety Last but it really did not capture the feel and flavor of the film. And the catchphrase of “an extraordinary adventure” is so generic that it may as well not exist at all. Bad marketing department! Bad!
Watch or Pass?
Watch. In spite of being about a half hour too long, it is still a very enjoyable film and a good choice for a family movie night. Some children may be frightened by the deaths of Hugo’s father and uncle (I know that I would have been as a small child but I was a real ‘fraidy cat) but the film would be ideal for kids ten and up.
The movie is beautiful to look at and it is, as stated before, a love letter to the silent era, as well as a plea for film preservation and appreciation. Let’s face it, kids are never to young to learn about appreciating their cultural heritage and Georges Méliès belongs to the world.
In fact, I dare say I would have enjoyed it even without the silent movie twist. But with it? Hurrah!
Silent Era Perception
Did this film harm the silent era’s reputation, help it, or is it a draw?
Okay, I had to admit that I did squeeee! at the Judex poster in the silent movie revival house. There are lots of treats and goodies in store for silent movie fans.
While Hugo does do the usual movie thing of “telescoping” events and simplifying reality, it is true to the overall spirit of the silent era. It captures the joy and beauty of the early silent era and it does so in a way that brings it to life for a whole new generation. Because the audience joins Hugo in his quest of discovery, we are delighted along with him when he discovers that the films of Méliès are not lost after all.
Martin Scorsese continues to earn his stripes as one of the greatest advocates for silent film active in Hollywood today.
The Verdict: Help. Hugo has actually been an excellent ambassador for silent film. I have had acquaintances drop the name of Georges Méliès and recognize his style– and they never before showed any interest in silent film. Any movie that gets people talking about silent movies– no, not just silent movies, pre-feature silent movies– is tops in my book. Hugo is a high-quality family film and a wonderful introduction to the silents.