I've been trying to organize my thoughts about why I was disappointed with this, but I think Tasha Robinson nailed most everything I was thinking in the linked piece. I'm in the camp that has problems with the first half of the film. The Polar Express
comparison was particularly spot-on - I wasn't enamored of the CGI spectacle of the train station at all, nor was I any more or less impressed with the 3D than usual. This could just be a matter of taste - a labyrinth of gears behind the walls doesn't provoke my imagination. It doesn't function as the typical 'secret world' you often find in children's entertainment - the world through the back of the wardrobe, or beyond Platform 9 3/4, or inside the chocolate factory. Hugo's world isn't all that fantastical - it's a train station filled with regular people and their cutesy subplots. It's mildly dangerous, but it's mostly just sad. Hugo doesn't seem to be enraptured by the station; he works like an adult and quietly starves while life goes on as normal around him. He doesn't do anything fun! I think it's telling that the inspector is the primary source of both menace and
levity for the bulk of the film.
That said, Hugo
is definitely an accomplished film and has some fantastic moments in it. The flashback to Melies' studio, in particular, is one of my favorite scenes of the year. In fact, I would say that the entire portion about Melies was great - from the library through the public screening at the end, I was moved. However, Hugo's own story was bland and protracted. It's completely overshadowed by the later developments with Melies. If, instead, you imagine the film were about Isabelle, alone, discovering her grumpy godather's identity at the library, and proceeding from there, Hugo could be excised from his own film and it might have been for the better! The revelations about Melies are moving because of his and his wife's character and portrayal, but they're only tangentially related to Hugo's predicament. Thematically, Hugo's idea that every person should have a purpose meshes well with Melies ultimately being appreciated for his obvious 'true purpose', but what does it say about Hugo's own arc? He's a cypher, and at the end of the film I was left feeling his purpose was just to deliver the MacGuffin to kick off the real part of the story. Two sad sacks coming together to turn their lives around is an effective cliche, but rarely has it been so unbalanced - Melies has a life- and history-altering change of heart, but the resolution to Hugo's story fell flat.
Interestingly enough, I've looked around a bit and many of the same criticisms were made against the book as the film. Has anyone read it? I'm curious if the Melies story was greatly embellished for the film - I'm guessing the speech about film preservation, at least, was an addition.