When I saw “Hugo” last week, never before was I so acutely aware of the difference between a 3 and 4-star film. At no point in “Hugo” was I not entertained. It is a visually splendid experience, which goes a long way in impressing me. But usually when I “like, not love, not dislike” a movie, I make my conclusion sometime after. Maybe it didn’t stick with me like an great movie should. Maybe the movie derailed at some point. Not with “Hugo”. Throughout the whole film, I was aware that I was enjoying myself, even if I was never thrilled or truly moved. I never got chills.
At no point was I compelled to extreme emotion. You know that Dungeons and Dragons “alignment chart” meme that’s gone around the internet? I think movies, at their best and worst, compel us to the far corners of the chart. They stir those emotions by evoking those feelings or confronting us.
“Hugo” didn’t do that for me. Part of it was the story. Its stakes, while involving and interesting, were never particularly moving. Not until the end of the film, when Ben Kingsley’s character is revealed to be the heart of it, is there a revelation about a character with some legitimate stakes involved. Surprisingly for a Scorsese movie (but perhaps to be expected in a family movie), its storytelling is perfunctory. It does what it needs to move the plot forward, and little more. That means it relies on its plot to be compelling. Some movies thrive on this. “LA Confidential” is the best example. Its plot twists and turns through the underbelly of film noir Los Angeles, and I’m more than happy to let it take me. “Hugo” is a notch below that. Its story is fun. That’s about it, and that’s totally fine.
I guess I expected to be more impressed by “Hugo” visually. Like “Avatar,” I think it’s being overpraised for the lushness of its visuals, instead of its creativity. Martin Scorsese’s famous Goodfellas tracking shot was sumptuous and fascinating, Scorsese at his most creative. The tracking shot at the beginning of “Hugo” was pretty and impressive, but it called attention to itself more, and lacked the little details that made the similar shot in “Goodfellas” come alive.
I don’t mean for this to sound like a negative review of “Hugo”. I would heartily recommend it to anyone. The moment I was done seeing it, I knew I would recommend it to anyone, but it wasn’t going on my top 10 list either.
Animation is one of my favorite art forms. It’s the freest form of cinematic expression. Anything is possible in animation, and almost anything can be made plausible, because animated films exist entirely in their own universes.
Usually, animated films are fantasies or science-fiction for this reason. However, some directors go the other direction, making films set entirely within the real world. Why go this route? Why not just film it?
For the brilliant Sylvain Chomet, the answer seems simple. His visual aesthetic is so much his own, it needs to be animated. His characters are a mix of grotesques and caricatures. Live-action, they’d be so over the top it’d seem kitschy or distracting; the makeup work would call too much attention to itself. In Chomet’s animated worlds, however, they fit right in.
One of the best known “realistic” animated films is Isao Takahata’s “Grave of the Fireflies”. Unlike Chomet, Takahata’s simple animation style contains nothing that requires it to be animated. And yet, it works as an animation. It’s an absorbing, heartbreaking film. We embrace these characters because they fit into the world Takahata creates, and he does so with loving attention to detail.
It also uses certain elements to its advantage. The film is about the death of two children by starvation (this isn’t a spoiler; it’s revealed in the first lines of the film that the two leads are dead). As Roger Ebert wrote in his glowing review of the film, such a movie featuring real actors might become repelling. The audience would be too upset at the fact of seeing a real child apparently starving. Animation provides a buffer, negating some of that visceral impact while retaining all the power of the story and characters.
Animation, more than live-action, provides a direct 1:1 correlation between the vision of the director and the film’s content. True maestros like Hayao Miyazaki conjure images that are some of the most creative to be put on film. Directors like Brad Bird create scenes as complex, and at times as visionary, as those in live-action film.
Animation isn’t a genre. It’s an art form. The last 15 years have been great for it, with the rise of Pixar, the re-emergence of Disney with “Tangled”, and the continued brilliance of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki. As long as the world’s animation schools and studios keep producing artists with visions that can’t be contained on a film camera, animation will continue to prosper.