Silents in Talkies: Hugo (2011)

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.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and Bluray.


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 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 and Isabelle get to the bottom of things.
Hugo and Isabelle get to the bottom of things.

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.

A marketing fail?
A marketing fail?

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 magic of the silents.
The magic of the silents.

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.


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  1. John Hitchcock (@HitchcocksWorld)

    I loved this film. I won’t claim to be any kind of expert in silent movies but I will confess that this film did a pretty good job of showing how great a man Georges Méliès was. I might not be an expert in silent movies but I can certainly appreciate Méliès for his historical significance. I actually did a tribute of my own to his work a few weeks ago:

  2. Emily

    I loved this film to pieces. Finally, a movie about silent films that shows the beauty of the period. In addition to being a love letter to silent cinema, it’s also a great film about family and finding meaning in life, truly life-affirming.

    I do agree with you on the bloated runtime, which is my chief complaint with modern film as well. (Did The Avenger really NEED to be 2 1/2 hours long??)

    Also agree on classic film child actors. Ugh! The other day I tried watching the 1934 version of Treasure Island on TCM, but I could not get past Jackie Cooper’s performance. i shut it off after thrity-five minutes and did not look back.

    1. Movies, Silently

      I know! I felt guilty but when Freddie Bartholomew started squeaking “Please, sir, don’t beat me, sir!” in the 1935 DAVID COPPERFIELD, my instant reaction was to shout “Beat him! Beat him!” That VOICE! 😡

      1. Emily

        I forgot to mention it in my initial post, but I wanted to say I am glad to see Silents in Talkies back. I yearn for the day when you can tear that awful Pearl White musical biopic apart. Not only is it an irritating film, it’s poison to silent era perception. Singin’ in the Rain would be fun, but you might get carted off to the stake for that one.

      2. Movies, Silently

        Yeah, it will take me a while to work my way up to biopics. They are just so… smug. There is something particularly bad about the post-War ones, what with their “we’re so modern, look at those creaky silents” attitude.

  3. thecinematicpackrat

    The movie is undoubtedly gorgeous. I do like how the adverts kept the secret of who Kingsley was playing. Makes it more satisfying when he is revealed in the film. Wouldn’t have known it was Melies if it wasn’t for a Scorsese interview prior to watching the film.

    Sadly, the film runs out of steam part way through. I think you’re point about a shorter running time is a good one.

    But it’s a great love letter to film. So, how can I dislike it.

  4. Todd Benefiel

    So many people I know loved this movie, so I finally checked it out…and oops, I was not impressed. And what’s interesting (or cool, if you run a silent movie blog) is that I cared nothing for the story involving the two kids (in fact, Asa Butterfield’s character completely irritated me), but I really loved the Georges Méliès story, and the behind-the-scenes of his life as a silent filmmaker. I could watch that part again and again…maybe I’ll buy the VHS tape and re-edit it to my specifications!

    And I loved ‘The Artist’, and made the mistake of clicking the link spotlighting the tirade by a certain ’50s actress; I hope I’m not ‘getting you started’, but she really did make me want to puke.

    1. Movies, Silently

      Yeah, it was just such a tasteless reaction. And such a funny thing, that tirade was JUST before her handprint ceremony in Hollywood. Hmm, not suspicious at all…

  5. Marsha Collock

    Oh, I just adored this film Aside from the treat of the spotlight on silents, I thought it really showed Mr. Scorsese’s love of film. I’m always a sucker for that kind of stuff.;

  6. KimWilson

    I’m a big fan of Hugo. I much preferred it to The Artist. As for the sheer production scale/costs, it was shot in 3-D, too, so this ran the costs up as well. This is DEFINITELY a film that should be seen in 3-D–it’s awesome.

    1. Movies, Silently

      That’s one of the biggest disadvantages of 3D-centric films: they are stunning in the theater and the experience can never be captured again unless they get a theatrical re-release

  7. Leah

    Personally, Hugo is one of my all-time favorite movies and holds a special place in my heart not only for the fact that its an excellent movie, but for all those silent film references! I admit though, I almost talked my mom’s ear off when pointing them all out! I should note that the book that the film is based off of is quite good too.

  8. Lea S.

    Just watched this excellent film last week! I love it, it’s a beautiful homage to the silent era. It is very long like most films these days, but in this case it doesn’t bother me since the story is so strong and well-told. I agree that the marketing campaign dropped the ball on that one–I had no idea the film was about Melies until I saw it. Happily enough, I noticed that Kino’s Magic of Melies DVD was their top seller for quite awhile after this film was released!

    Oh yes, I love how they incorporated those old silent film posters too–there seems to be one of Roscoe Arbuckle, which made me extra uber excited!

    And I fully, 100% agree with how ridiculous it is to nitpick The Artist. Folks. This is not supposed to be an exhaustively accurate carbon-copy reproduction of a late ’20s silent film. It’s an HOMAGE to silent film, using many of the same methods. For CRIPES SAKE.

    It’s also nice to note that we also have Johnny Depp to thank for Hugo, as he is the co-producer on this film.

    1. Movies, Silently

      Yeah, the nit-pickers really need to get out more (says the blogger obsessed with silent movies). Wading through rants about every tiny detail was just exhausting. I mean, why the heck do some people even watch movies? When… eccentrics start going off on stuff like that, I am reminded of an apocryphal quote from George S. Kaufman:

      “If you could somehow put the Mount Wilson telescope inside the Mount Palomar telescope, you still wouldn’t be able to detect my interest in your problem.”

      Her hair was 1/8″ too long for the period? Wow, someone has sure won the internet. 😉

      Johnny Depp… For me, as an actor, he is an excellent producer 😉

  9. Le

    I loved this film so much! I actually became emotional when little scenes from silent films appeared on the big screen, because I’ve never seen a silent in a movie theater. I also liked that the story was not all about the automaton, it was solved midway and started a new adventure. I think it was too long and extravagant because many theaters offered it on 3D. Since I haven’t watched it in 3D, I can’t really judge it.

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