HUGO Review

     November 22, 2011


The most talented directors find a way to use their cinematic influences in order to build a new story, and then let the audience seek out those influences.  It’s a rewarding experience because we can see how well the director used the earlier work of other filmmakers, and then we seek out that work for ourselves, which in turn expands our knowledge and understanding of cinema.  Martin Scorsese is one of the most talented directors of all-time and has always proved a master of layering in his inspirations without ever overtly referencing them.  He leaves that direct reference for interviews where his infectious energy and enthusiasm shows that if he wasn’t a legendary filmmaker, he’d be a legendary film professor.  However, that energy and enthusiasm doesn’t translate to his new 3D movie Hugo where he moves his love of movies from subtext to text, and turns a child’s adventure story into a lecture on the importance of cinema pioneer Georges Méliès.

Set in 1920s Paris, the story follows young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who secretly lives inside a train station after the death of his father (Jude Law).  Hugo’s daily adventures include swiping food to survive, avoiding the watchful eye of the crippled station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), and trying to steal machine parts from Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley) who operates a toy shop inside the terminal.  While the movie opens with a long, sweeping shot indicating that Scorsese is about to have some serious fun with the 3D, matters quickly turn grim as our first meeting with Hugo has him getting caught red-handed by Georges and then getting his precious notebook confiscated.  Hugo tearfully asks for it back, but when he won’t explain where he got it from, Georges says he’s taking the notebook home to burn it.  Hugo has a tough time finding its footing when we enter with the visual wonder of the train station only to be hit moments later with a Dickensian encounter.


From this point onward, the film tries to serve two stories that should work hand-in-hand.  One story is the adventure of Hugo teaming up with Georges’ god-daughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) to get the notebook back and unlock the mystery of an automaton he received from his father.  But the larger story is about Scorsese’s real interest: the magic of cinema.  Scorsese never neglects the adventure or the mystery, but it seems like he believes his love and unwavering belief in movies will sprinkle down like fairy dust and enchant Hugo’s story.

Looking at how Hugo is built, that approach should be a success.  The movie has an incredibly smart subtext about deriving the magical from the mechanical.  For Scorsese, 3D was essential to telling this story not only because of the visual wonder he could pull from the technology, but because it gives him a line all the way back to Méliès.  Méliès was originally a magician, and then he discovered the technology of cinema, built his own camera and studio, thus combining magic with cinema and eventually to Martin Scorsese.  Hugo is Scorsese paying it forward by trying to show kids today how the magic of the cinema they love comes from the magic Georges Méliès created at the dawn of cinema.


In theory, the delivery method of wrapping this lesson in an adventure movie should work.  It should be an absolute joy to see Hugo and Isabelle running through a gorgeously realized environment filled with classic architecture, golden gears, and secret passages.  The mystery involves a mechanical man, a key in the shape of a heart, and hidden messages.  It’s a set-up that both kids and adults should love.

“Should.”  That’s the word that best applies to Hugo.  As the end credits rolled, I sat in my seat and was dumbfounded at why the film left me so cold.  It speaks to my love of cinema, has a great premise, the performances are solid, the visuals and 3D are spectacular, and it has a thoughtful subtext running throughout.  It wasn’t until I discussed the movie with my peers that I finally began to understand why Hugo should work but it doesn’t.


There are some elements where the shortcomings are readily apparent.  John Logan‘s script is bogged down in clumsy exposition and manufactured conflict like when Hugo won’t simply tell Georges, “I got the notebook from my dead father and it’s precious to me.” There’s so much sorrow that at one point Isabelle has to stop and tell Hugo that’s it’s okay to cry, which is good because he does it a lot.  It’s tough to care if the station inspector finds love with the florist (Emily Mortimer) because he seems to take such glee in sending helpless kids to the orphanage.  The movie mistakes nastiness for danger and further undermines the notion that Hugo is a first and foremost an adventure story.

But the main reason the adventure fails to come alive is because Scorsese has turned his love of movies from subtext to text, and it makes Hugo feel like a lecture.  It’s a thoughtful and intelligent lecture filled with gorgeous visual aids, but we’re no longer in theater.  We’re in a classroom.  Scorsese is trying so hard to capture the magic of Méliès, bring that magic to a modern day audience (Hugo is filled with clips from Méliès’ movies), and then explain why that magic is magical.  If you were to watch a documentary where Scorsese talked about Méliès for over two hours, it would probably be fantastic.  But having him try to do it through a kids’ adventure film drains the story of its wonder and makes his points feel heavy-handed.


Scorsese’s approach to a kids film is assuming that if he fills the movie with the veneer of a grand adventure, colorful visuals, and a goofy station inspector (who actually comes off as more cruel than buffoonish—the character is stuck between Buster Keaton and a Charles Dickens villain), then an audience of children will have a grand old time.  But instead the effect comes off like a grandfather handing his grandchildren a copy of A Trip to the Moon and then explaining why they should love it.

I’m left to wonder why Scorsese chose to make overt references to Méliès when he could have made a more graceful and captivating movie if he hid those references within the context of a larger, more accessible story.  When the music video for The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” was released in 1996, I had no idea it was based on A Trip to the Moon.  I simply liked the song really dug the music video.  It wasn’t until I was older that I learned about the inspiration for the music video and that original appreciation carried over to A Trip to the Moon and made me want to see Méliès’ other films.  That won’t happen to kids who see Hugo because Scorsese makes the adventure serve the lecture, and the movie will only enchant 10-year-old cinephiles and those who feel like an ode to Méliès’ is its own adventure.

Rating: B-


  • Anthony

    I got nothing out of this review, thanks for another shitty review Matt.

    • Giovanni

      Agreed, instead of complaining about what he felt the director did wrong i learned nothing and whether or not i still want to see the movie or not hasn’t changed. I am still undecided. B- is a safe score for someone not trying to insult Scorsese but also not fully embrace the film either.

  • nelson

    when will collider fire matt he adds nothing of substance to this site

    no one likes him



      • micoy

        This is a great review. Thank you Matt.

    • Agent_Black

      “no one likes him”

      Nelson, that’s a sweeping generalisation lacking any basis in fact and ultimately, credibility.

      It is a skewed perception based on the more likely possibility that a small minority of people have nothing better to do than sit on the internet for hours, spreading negativity and whinging when someone says something that they do not like or disagree with, whilst the vast majority just read the article and get on with their lives.

  • tarek

    Speak for yourself. I like him.

    Great review matt.

    I’m so sorry for Luca$ and Michael Bay

  • Jake

    So basically, Goldberg is being a massive c_nt like usual and Hugo is a masterpiece like everyone is saying.

  • Junierizzle

    Did you read the book? It sounds like Scorsese followed the book exactly. I loved the book and it’s no surprise why Scorsese did this movie.

    . You’re saying you didn’t like it because it was about learning about the history of film. Thats like saying you didnt like The Dark Knight because it was about Batman trying to stop the Joker. The history of film and the love of film is what Hugo is really about. The kid adventure was always secondary.

  • gimpsuit

    I don’t value this review.
    Everyone else seems to love it. Perhaps you cought it on a bad day, which is a fundamental problem with review/ers. Catch any film on a bad day and it will suck… Or maybe Matt jsut has sand in his vag.

  • kingpin

    majority of the critics and the audiences felt that the first act and second act are good or mediocre(though some loved it from beginning to end like TIME magazinr’s critic). BUT EVERYONE is unanimous with how moving the 3rd act is. you know why Matt was dumbfounded? he’s as cold as a viewer can be.

    let Matt review films that are “bad-ass” or “fresh” or “new”. he’s the wrong audience for this. this is for film fans, not film haters

  • snickle

    First time I’ve ever felt that one of Matt’s reviews was going to be lower then it actually was! Yay Matt! Good job branching out buddy!

  • elikias

    You’re the worst kind of person, Matt Goldberg. You murder puppies and sprinkle chopped up little pieces of them on your breakfast cereal.

  • Jay

    All too-easy Matt-bashing aside, it I’d kind of depressing that this site’s main critical voice comes across as so joyless, so negative. I mean you’re literally becoming the Armand White of movie sites Matt. It’s sad. I went abroad a few years back for a year and decided to look for work as a critic, thinking ‘how amazing would it be to do this as a JOB!’. I was employed by a film magazine and began attending screenings and writing reviews. Here’s the facts. You end up watching movies in an entirely different way. Taking mental notes, nitpicking in a way you never would previously….that all sounds very obvious, but it’s an important point. Within 5 reviews, my joy was gone. I was watching movies in the wrong way entirely. I’m sorry to say it Matt, but as someone who has been there – you’ve lost your love of cinema man. Your reviews are grim, pedantic, joyless affairs – Try to get back in touch with why you fell in love with cinema in the first place.

    • Dsimolke

      Solid comment, man. That’s a better approach to the bashing. I too over-analyze film too much, but you gotta stay in touch with why you BEGAN over-analyzing it in the first place. The love of cinema. I need to remember that from time to time myself. Although I still tend to watch movies for their technical form above a lot of other more conventional reasons. I find solace in it when I get tired of formula haha.

  • MJ

    It’s kind of difficult to take the approach suggested by Matt when a large portion of the story deals directly with Méliès instead of simply being “inspired” by him: he’s a central character in the film and part of the character arc involves his filmography. It’s not like something merely inspired by his work, which could indeed have a less apparent subtext, because the heart of the story really is tied right into his films. There’s no way of making that “subtext” to the degree that you think it should have been.

    It’s not fundamentally what the film is trying to do with its material, imo.

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  • Frank

    Just to give people a different take – this is the timbre of the reaction from…oooooh…95% of people who’ve seen it?

    What the hell, Matt. What the hell.

  • Jason White

    much better review over at
    this one’s rubbish