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Hugo Movie Review

The (Cyber) Bag of Weasels

bread and puppet

"About as much fun as a bag of weasels"...when I first saw this Irish adage, it made me think of the life of a writer: sometimes perilous, sometimes painful, certainly interesting. My paper journal has always been called "The Bag of Weasels." This is the Bag of Weasels' online home.

Hugo Movie Review

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Bobby and I went on a date last night and saw Hugo. He's been itching to see it since we saw a preview before, I think, J. Edgar that somehow completely evaporated from my mind. (We went to see J. Edgar mid-week and I was very tired--the likely explanation.) So I took him at his word that I told him that I thought the preview looked promising, at the time. He conveniently failed to mention that it was 3D until we were walking up to the theater and I saw "Hugo--3D" on the marquee and whined a bit; 3D movies (even when the 3D is used for spectacular effect, as indeed it was in Hugo inevitably look rough to me. I don't know if it's because I have preternaturally good vision (I do) or what; I know no one else who experiences 3D movies like I do. They're distracting and prevent me from becoming fully immersed.

Nonetheless, Hugo was a damned fine and absolutely beautiful movie, although I do not agree with it on all points. (Do I ever??)

When we meet young Hugo, he is occupying the clock tower of a train station in post-WWI France. We are given a flashback from the get-go that shows Hugo in cleaner clothes with tidier hair, working with his clockmaker father to reconstruct an automaton, a clockwork figure meant to seamlessly perform human movements. This particular automaton--purportedly the most complex that the clockmaker has seen--is meant to write, but it has fallen into disrepair and is missing key parts, including a mysterious heart-shaped key. The clockmaker and his son (Hugo) commence rebuilding the automaton and are making good progress when the clockmaker is killed in a fire at the museum where he works.

Hugo is introduced to this brutal truth when his drunken uncle comes to retrieve him and takes him to the train station clock tower, where he winds and maintains the clocks and lives in the walls, living hand to mouth. He teaches Hugo his trade and promptly disappears, leaving Hugo to take care of the clocks in his absence while trying to remain invisible: The station guard abhors orphans and takes a particular relish in snagging them and sending them off via paddywagon to the orphanage. Hugo continues working on the automaton--stealing parts from a nearby maker of clockwork toys--and desperately wishes to finish it, believing that the automaton will scribe a message for his deceased father and provide Hugo with a connection to the only person he ever loved. Capture and imprisonment in the orphanage would deny him the chance to establish this last connection with his father.

But while stealing clockwork parts, Hugo is caught by the toymaker and deprived of his father's notebook, which contains plans for the automaton and seems to exert an unexpectedly profound influence on the toymaker, Georges Méliès. Hugo convinces Georges' adopted daughter Isabelle to help him retrieve the notebook, and the two kids embark on an adventure to discover the connection between Georges, the automaton, and Hugo's deceased father.

Their explorations lead them to a surprising discovery: A stage magician by training, Georges was a pioneer moviemaker, creating some 500 short silent films before the outbreak of World War I. His films delighted and inspired audiences with their imagination and his skill with creating special effects on film. After the war, though, Georges found that audiences no longer related to his films, which seemed to come from a frivolously innocent bygone era that the war had forced them to outgrow. Facing bankruptcy, he had to sell his films to be recycled into high-heeled shoes; in a fit of despair, he destroyed also the fabulous costumes and props that he'd labored so long to create.

The storyline itself is imaginative, the type of plot where the viewer can try to piece together clues alongside the characters before achieving the final revelation. But what really caught and held my interest (and has kept me thinking today) were the themes whirling like so many clockwork gears beneath the shiny surface of the story.

Georges was clearly a master artist of the sort that can impart a magic to his work beyond mere illusion. He expects--and without justification, being one of the trailblazers of the motion picture--to achieve immortality, but his fame is cruelly short-lived. Hugo and Isabelle discover Georges' past as a moviemaker from a professor of film studies, Tabard, who believes Georges to have died in the war. Emotionally and figuratively, of course, this is true; he is reduced from a great artist to a toy seller whose name is forgotten to such an extent that his teenage daughter never encounters it a popular culture reference until she goes looking. As an artist myself, I felt Georges' pain keenly, as well as his indignation: Who among us in the genre of "speculative fiction" hasn't been stung by an accusation of frivolity and escapism? It is, in my experiences, one of the most hurtful ways of being brushed aside, to claim that one's art isn't equal to the world that inspired it because that world is too full of cruelty and sorrow, that there is no value in what doesn't constantly dig its fingers into those spiritual wounds. Indeed, alongside the grainy newsreels of the war, Georges' films do look exaggerated, campy, silly; they are the childhood indulgences best not mentioned by the adult having come through pain and into maturity.

As much as that theme spoke to me, another prominent idea in the movie--that everyone and everything has its place, like a cog in a machine, with no extra or useless parts--didn't appeal to me at all. I dislike dualism, the notion that there are two choices: Either something fits or it doesn't. Either something is one's place or calling in life, or it's not. There is no room for ambiguity or acknowledgement of multiple paths in life. Life is represented as akin to jiggling a gear until it drops into place and then one knows that she has found her purpose. As someone who feels called to many paths and recognizes no single destination, I don't believe it is that simple and don't even find the idea that it might be appealing. Isabelle decides to risk her middle-class comfort to help a street urchin she doesn't know because, as she tells Hugo, she senses that there might be an adventure in discovering why a young boy's notebook means so much to her adopted father. Isabelle sees joy in wandering and discovering along the paths of life, not in dropping snugly into a destination, yet it is Hugo's vision of mechanical perfection that the characters ultimately achieve.

As a feminist, I also can't help but to look at stories (including, of course, movies) through the lens of gender. Isabelle is the quintessential female bookworm (much like Hermione) that has become a safe role to give to a female character so that one can avoid the accusation of creating a boys-only club without actually having to hand the lead to a girl. Yet Isabelle very much takes the lead. Having been orphaned and knowing that it is only a matter of time before the station guard catches him and ships him off to the orphanage, Hugo has little to lose and little in the way of options beside working singlemindedly toward the completion of his automaton. He embarks on the "adventure" in order to get back his notebook and achieve his goal all the faster for it.

Isabelle, on the other hand, comes from a loving, middle-class family. She does have something to lose. When she decides to pry into the shadowed past of "Papa Georges," she risks not only hurting her adopted parents--her adopted mother warns her that Papa Georges' past contains too much pain for one as young as Isabelle to understand--but also discovering something that will shatter her innocence and possibly the devotion that she feels for her adopted parents. Few skeletons in the closet are as innocent as an artistic career derailed, and Isabelle's discoveries could transform her family irreparably. Yet she proceeds.

When Georges realizes that he is not forgotten and dares to reenter a world that is again ready to receive his films, though, it is Hugo--not Isabelle--whom he credits with providing the impetus. This was probably the most frustrating part of the movie for me. Hugo had his own motives for pursuing the completion of the automaton that had nothing to do with what the automaton meant for Georges, who we come to learn was its original creator. Only after Hugo realized that the automaton's message connected to Georges (whom Hugo's father admired as a filmmaker) did Hugo become concerned with reuniting the old man and his creation. Until that point, Georges was a means to an end for him: a source of clockwork parts who took a notebook that Hugo valued and wished to have returned. It was Isabelle who took the risks, who sought to reunite Georges with his vision for love of and faith in the old man, who stood to lose much through failure. In the movie's final scene, we see all of the characters in their intended roles: Georges as the visionary filmmaker, Jeanne his wife as the lovely actress and a pillar of support for her husband, Hugo as the entertainer and illusionist ... but what of Isabelle? She wanders through the final scene, seemingly adrift ... but then she settles down and opens a journal. She is to be the author, putting her fictional adventures and impressive vocabulary to good use, the one who brings Georges' and Hugo's stories to the world. In typically humble and feminine fashion, through her adoring gaze we see the triumphs or Georges and Hugo without nearly enough credit meted out to herself.

Hugo was lovely, absorbing, and thought-provoking. I give it 3.85 E.L. Fudge Elves Exist cookies out of 4.

This post was originally posted on Dreamwidth and, using my Felagundish Elf magic, crossposted to LiveJournal. You can comment here or there!

  • Laura and I both want to see this movie. We did not know it was 3D either. Neither of us are able to watch 3-D. It gives Laura a migraine and it makes me feels nauseous. Baby Fingon can't stand it either; he and Laura left a 3D movie recently (I am blanking on which one--one of the recent kiddie film releases). In the recent case with Laura and Baby Fingon, they were able to see the film in another theater without 3D. Maybe we can find Hugo playing without the 3D somewhere.

    WTF? My surprise is that there are people who actually like it. I do not think it is a question of vision, but how one processes images.

    ETA: It was Puss 'n Boots, that they could not watch in 3D.

    Edited at 2011-12-04 03:02 am (UTC)
    • When I watch 3D, it's almost like I can see the individual frames; the motion is very inconsistent, and it's distracting. It doesn't make me feel ill or give me headaches, it's just annoying. At no point watching a 3D movie do I actually believe that it is 3D. The way I see it is in no way convincing.

      I don't know anyone who likes 3D movies. It's just a money-making scheme, imo. I was thrilled because, until recently, the Real Country Movie Theater only had 2D capabilities, so we could see 3D movies there in 2D. But they're on the bandwagon now too. Good luck finding it in 2D--it's definitely worth seeing!
  • I don't get why it had to be in 3D either--at times I saw some of the "pop-out" effect, but for the most part I just felt like the movie's visuals were more than enough on their own and the 3D effect was just depriving me of the richness of light and color (if that makes sense). Also it's no fun wearing 3D glasses on top of the glasses I actually need to see. :P

    I agree with your thoughts on the movie! I personally found it slow in the beginning and didn't really feel like cheering Hugo on (though that could be for a completely shallow reason like that his sad blue eyes felt like they were taking up half the screen and distracting me at times), but I did want to know more about Isabelle (and pretty much everyone but Hugo). But otherwise the film struck me as having a sort of "magic" I loved--maybe because I am fascinated with very early films like "A Trip to the Moon" and was taken by surprise when the story involved that. (I didn't recognize the name "Méliès" at first. I had fun with research right after I got home from the movie, though!)
    • I'm glad I wasn't the only one who found Hugo the character completely ... underwhelming. Everything he did until the very end was in his own self-interest and (aside from insisting on having his notebook back) didn't even show much in the way of personal agency. He was really the last person I think Georges should have applauded: Isabelle and Jeanne both did so much more.
  • I dislike 3D, too - so far I've always had the feeling that only one part of the picture is actually focused, then when my mind is tricked into thinking it's thredimensional, it tries to focus on different bits, which will never work because it just isn't filmed that way, and then I get a headache. Sometimes the 3D effect is impressive, but most of the time it just doesn't work properly. I have no idea why so many people like it, or why it appears to be the new standard. My eyes always wander "beyond" the 3D and that's when it goes wrong. Perhaps my brain is too fast or something. :P

    Nice to know that Hugo is worth watching - I saw a preview on TV and wondered. Not that I'll manage to catch it while it's in theatres, but there's always the DVD release. In, blessedly, 2D...
    • That's the closest I've heard someone else describe how I perceive 3D movies. It's almost like I can see the individual frames, so motion appears jerky and inconsistent. I don't get a headache, thank goodness; it's just distracting and annoying.

      I don't actually know anyone who likes 3D. I think the notion that people like 3D (especially enough to pay extra for it!) has been manufactured by Hollywood.

      Definitely do check Hugo out on [2D] DVD! It's far better than most mainstream movies that come out these days! :)
  • *shrug* Apparently 3D doesn't work for me, probably because it needs both eyes to process the 3D image. And we're then charged extra for movies that IMO wouldn't be enhanced by it.
    Perplexing... but going to the movies is rare enough in any case, these days. :P

    I give it 3.85 E.L. Fudge Elves Exist cookies out of 4.
    Ha! I like your rating system. Why E.L.?

    • I don't know anyone who likes 3D, much less enough to pay extra for the "privilege" of poor, inconsistent, headache-inducing picture quality and the "honor" of wearing those fab glasses. ;)

      Ha! I like your rating system. Why E.L.?

      Are you familiar with the E.L. Fudge brand of cookies? Some of the cookies say "Elves Exist" (others say "Do You Believe in Elves?"). I've been rating movies with these cookies for years! :)
  • I saw this today and could not resist. I actually took this for you.

    • Ha! As noted on your LJ, when I first saw it, I thought Hugo was perching on BF's shoulders! :D Cool effect!
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