Judging by the directorial efforts of two of the greatest living auteurs in the business, 2011 was the year in which Paris's past was to be romanticized. Mere months after Woody Allen's wonderful ode to the Lost Generation, Midnight in Paris, Martin Scorcese threw his hat in the ring with Hugo--his 3-D love letter to 1930 Paris and to the early French innovators of filmmaking, particularly Georges Méliès. While Hugo may not achieve the level of success that Allen's ode to Paris did earlier in the year (and certainly not the level of success that seems to be indicated by the near-universal raves it has received), it is ambitious to be sure.
His re-creation of the train station in its 1930 glory is spectacular. The casting is superb, with sterling performances from young and old alike. Ben Kingsley is great as Georges Méliès, just as one would expect, but the film is carried by its two young stars, Asa Butterfield playing the lead and Chloe Grace Moretz as his friend Isabelle. The re-imagining of Méliès's filmmaking process is both enlightening and captivating. The love for the history of cinema is placed prominently in the foreground, which is particularly admirable in that it serves a purpose of hopefully endearing the foreign but vital ancestry of the art form to a new generation.
The shortcomings are in the storytelling. Hugo, a PG family film, comes in at two hours and fifteen minutes in length. If it were chock-full of action, adventure, intrigue, or plot-developments, that likely wouldn't be a hindrance. It is not. The film's narrative meanders, and while deliberately-paced film-making needn't generally be a problem, this is a movie geared largely towards children. Objectively, the film could probably have twenty minutes culled from it without suffering.
Moving on, the other glaring issue is that the film's visual palette is so close to that of the Jean-Pierre Jeunet films Amelie and City of Lost Children that it borders on being derivative, leaving the viewer to wonder if any tale of whimsy set in France has to look like this by some undocumented law. It's not that it is an unpleasant style, but one could make a silent montage of scenes from the three films and think that one director was responsible for all of the scenes.
For the most part, Hugo was a fine film, which may not be evident from the comments above, but to qualify it as great is perhaps taking things a step too far.
Would any dissenters care to throw in their two cents?