So, before anyone else had even heard of this movie, it was one of my most anticipated of the year. Then people started hearing of it and began anticipating it, too. Then the trailer came out... and what a piece of crap that was. It went from in my Top 3 most anticipated to not even in my Top 10. It just looked abysmal and Oh-My-God-What-Is-Scorsese-Doing? But then the reviews started coming in, and most people declared it one of the best of the year. I became confused. So when the film landed in my town for basically a week-long run, I knew I had to check it out before it was too late. And what did it end up being? A very difficult film to talk about.
On the surface, the film starts off as one thing but then turns into something completely different about halfway through. We meet Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who lives in the walls of a Parisian train station and fixes clocks. One day, he's caught thieving by a toy shop owner, Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley), and he takes a journal that belongs to Hugo. The journal belonged to Hugo's father (Jude Law) and told how he could continue fixing an automaton. Hugo befriends Georges' Goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), in an attempt to get the journal back. But in this process, he begins to discover the secrets behind the automaton and its connection to Georges, as well as Georges' secret past. Meanwhile, Hugo must stay out of sight from the Station Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen), who would quickly snatch him up and send him to the orphanage. The film also co-stars Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Frances de la Tour, and Richard Griffiths (yup... three Harry Potter alums!).
The film is very beautiful to watch. It gives off a magical appearance, like a whole new world exists within the walls of the Parisian train station. And it's rather fitting, as the movie as a whole is about embracing the magic of imagination. There is a lot of love given to cinema in this film, as movies play a large role in (the latter half of) the film.
But here's the problem I had with the movie... I just couldn't get absorbed by it all. It looked magical and beautiful. There was a solid mystery. The characters were good. Everything about this was completely solid film-making. But for some reason, none of that was getting my investment. I wasn't bored, though I did (ironically) look at my watch twice. The first time was a little over an hour in, and it felt like it had at least been thirty minutes longer than that.
I've thought about why this could be. I believe I've come to the conclusion that I was caught off guard; I wasn't watching what I thought I was supposed to be watching. The film was advertised as more of a whimsical kids movie about a kid who lives in clock towers and has adventures with a girl he befriends, mostly centered around a wacky station inspector and a mysterious robot. What it actually is... is a sad movie about losing everything you held dear, whether that be your parents, your leg, your love, your brother, or your life dream, and coping with it as best you can on a day-to-day basis. Every character in this movie (with the exception of Griffiths and de la Tour) lost something dear to them and live with a sadness behind their eyes. The aforementioned two just struggle to be with each other due to a minor complication.
In the end, there is a strong message of "never give up and always follow your heart." And everybody portrays that message greatly in their own little story. Even Sasha Baron Cohen moves beyond being a flat villain and has an arch of his own to overcome, and it's one of his best acting performances. Ben Kingsley also gives a very strong performance, as well (which is good considering the film is really about him).
I know I probably sounded very negative in this review, but I honestly still really liked the film. It wasn't anything like I expected, either in plot or in tone, but Scorsese still managed to show his chops in this lighter fare. Pay no attention to the terrible trailers. This film is much more than anything you've seen advertised. It has strong themes and is, as many have already said, a love song to following your dreams, to discovering the magic of imagination, and to viewing and appreciating film itself.