At many points during the runtime of Hugo, the film feels like a collision between two separate films. The problem with this is that not only is one of these films pretty dull, but the two films seem to form into a heterogeneous mixture. You can clearly tell that there are two films there and it really takes you out of the final product. Martin Scorsese brings a lot of great parts to this film, but the film does not at any point exceed them.
The film follows Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who lives in a train station, as he tries to repair an automatan, a robot that can write on its own. The problem is he has to get the parts from a grumpy old man (Ben Kingsley) and has to avoid the strict security-man (Sacha Baron Cohen), who does not tolerate orphans in his train station.
One part of the film's main focus is on the struggle that Hugo has to go through to survive with no family alive and no real friends to help him. This part of the film seems half baked and I would have expected a lot more from a director like Martin Scorsese. The editing of this part of the film also seems to have been rushed as it could have used some more character development. For example, Jude Law plays an important character in Hugo's life and barely gets a minute's worth of screentime.
Surprisingly, the strong point of this first half is Asa Butterfield. Asking a child actor to carry a large portion of the film (Butterfield is rarely offscreen during the entire film) is a major risk, but Scorsese had faith in his actor. Butterfield ends up giving a strongly emotional performance that never goes into annoying territory (like so many performances from actors of a similar age will fall into). He more than holds his own with veteran actors (like Kingsley) and gives the second best performance in the film (more on the best later).
However, after Scorsese makes us believe in the lead character he reveals why he really wanted to make this film. The second half of the film brings in another subject matter. Ben Kinglsey's character ends up becoming the main focus of the film and the film turns into a tribute to filmmaking. Scorsese's direction here becomes much more unique and you can tell he really enjoyed directing this portion of the film. Every tool Scorsese has is used to the best of its ability. The cinematography is astounding (as it is in the early half too), and Scorsese actually uses 3D in a fascinating way. The 3D not only adds depth to the Paris location (adding to its beauty), but actually makes the 3D work into the storyline. The art direction is impeccable and even the effects are pretty good.
This is also the point where the ensemble is given a chance to work together. Ben Kingsley is a great piece of casting and he delivers a solid performance that anchors the film. Chloe Moretz is also solid, but is given nothing to do besides giving out exposition. The film also shows that toning down Sacha Baron Cohen's antics works well for him as he gives one of his best performances to date as a security guard. The real standout of the cast though is Michael Stuhlbarg as a film historian. The role is nothing substantial but Stuhlbarg makes the most of it by showing how good of a chameleon he is. I didn't even know it was him until someone mentioned he was in it a few days later.
There is a lot to like in Hugo, but when it is over, it doesn't seem like all of these great pieces fit together.