My friend Dora Kuhn has a good saying for an item or event which fails to live up to the hype.

Big Nothing.

I thought of this when I saw the movie Hugo.  What a steaming pile of crap.

An extremely beautiful piece of crap, mind you.  But crap just the same.

First of all, it’s billed as a kids movie, but isn’t.  When you boil it down, it’s Martin Scorsese’s ‘love letter to early cinema.’

There’s a lot I don’t know about our Universe, but I know this.  ‘Love letters to early cinema’ and kids movies are non-intersecting circles on the universal Venn Diagram.

Yes, the movie starts with the glimmer of an interesting idea – a rudimentary robot which may, if successfully rebuilt by 12-year-old orphan Hugo Cabret, transmit a message from his late father.

But the message, when it arrives, is so far off-point, and so intimately connected to the ‘love letter to early cinema’ venture, the whole enterprise just sinks into non-narrative sludge.

Yes, the Parisian train station is beautiful.  Yes, there is initial promise in the idea of an orphan who travels the station’s tunnels, towers, and secret back passages.  But when you get past the nostalgic shots of train-engine steam, flower carts, and turn-of-the-century tweed, you are left with … a big nothing.  There isn’t any there there, as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, Calif.

My 8-year-old son, Jesse, a smart kid and very patient, sat through the entire movie, turned to me, and said, “I didn’t get it.”

“Me either,” I said.

My 10-year-old daughter, Lulu, who read the book, said it was actually a great movie.  However, this was likely a reactionary stance.  She and her brother disagree on every single subject, right down to whether it’s sunny outside.

I will say this, in defense of the Brian Selznick book which inspired the movie.  It’s a rare children’s book which is more than 500 pages long, but can be read by a child in a single sitting.  Most of the pages are big, moody, charcoal-style drawings totally devoid of text.  The book is like the movie – beautiful to look at, no story inside.

I think what my daughter liked best about this book was carrying it around.

Look what I read!  533 pages! 

Could I be wrong about Hugo?  I guess.  Theoretically, remotely possible.


I use ‘get on the bus’ to indicate one’s reaction to a new movie, acquaintance, or a new experience of any kind.  You have your first impression of the thing, and you either get on the bus or you don’t.  You’re either engaged and curious to know more, or not.

At no point did I get on the Hugo bus.  To me, the movie deserves the same critical thrashing which the writer Joe Queenan once gave to both jazz music and the U.S. Civil War in the pages of the old Spy magazine.  Queenan had a regular series called, Admit It! It Sucks!

Here are snippets from his Civil War essay:

You know the feeling: Some friends call and invite you down to their house in Charlottesville, Virginia. There’ll be pecan pie, horseback riding and, of course, that old barn burner between Virginia and Virginia Tech. But the real lure – the bait they know you can’t refuse – is a chance to visit some of the important landmarks of the War Between the States.

You can hardly suppress your enthusiasm. Ever since PBS ran that nine-part series about the Civil War three years ago, you can’t get that titanic struggle for the nation’s soul out of your thoughts…

But then you remember: Your apartment needs a paint job, your car’s been acting up lately, there’s the new Laurie Anderson show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this Friday…

After you put down the phone, you have to be honest with yourself … the Civil War sucks.

I disagree with Joe Queenan about the Civil War.  But I maintain that only Queenan could do justice to the highbrow, snooze-fest which was Scorsese’s ‘love letter to early cinema.’  If Hugo is a kids movie, then there’s an entire generation of toddler cinephiles which I was totally unaware of.

If you want a good kids movie, then skip Hugo and get on the bus with any of the following instead:  School of Rock; Spy Kids; Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events; We Bought a Zoo; Despicable Me; Toy Story; or, nostalgia-wise, Chitty Bang Bang; The Sound of Music; Mary Poppins; or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Not a single one of these, I am happy to report, is a ‘love letter to early cinema.’

About Kit Troyer

Kit Troyer lives in Los Angeles. He worked previously as a newspaper reporter and a criminal defense attorney. For the last 15 years, he has been a stay-at-home dad. But that gig is running out. Kids will soon be moving out and moving on.
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8 Responses to BIG NOTHING

  1. Wrye Martin says:

    We’ve always known this sort of thing as a ‘nothingburger’.

  2. Matt Karis says:

    Hmmm, “We Bought A Zoo” for kids? I have to respectfully disagree. Dad pining for dead mom’s ghost, angry teenager with an emerging sex drive and a few f-bombs for no apparent reason — not to mention the traditional (yet effective) Cameron Crowe emotional manipulation? It worked for my wife and her friend (non-stop tears), but the 6 year old and 8-year old boys mostly enjoyed hearing the F word and looking at our faces for a reaction. Nicely done, but for a kid movie, it didn’t complete me.

  3. kittroyer says:

    Did you ask the theater to show you your money?

    I’ll still take F-bombs and emerging teen sex drive (band name?) over ‘love letter to early cinema’ any day!

  4. Karen Todd says:

    I’d like to add ANNIE to the list. My 2-year-old now says “I love you, Miss Hannnigan-Mommy” to me daily. That’s what I get for thinking a movie about orphans would show her how good she’s got it.

  5. John Isbell says:

    If you loved Hugo, you’re gonna really love War Horse. Talk about a pile of shit!! That’s 3 hours I’ll never get back.

    Great review BTW.

  6. Lynne Englert says:

    Haven’t yet seen Hugo because my son claims with absolute certainty that the movie sucks, even though he has yet to see it. But then he seemed to enjoy War Horse, and I have to agree with the above review of that movie, so I was on the fence about seeing Hugo until now. Thanks for the heads up, and for reminding me of how great that “Admit it, it Sucks” bit was in the old Spy.

  7. Brooke Baker says:

    Hi Kit!
    So ornery, in your old age!
    Happy to be reading your blog now. 🙂
    I liked how the girl finds her purpose in the end. She realizes she’s the storyteller.
    “Aw”. I know.

  8. Marina says:

    Hi Kit, Hey, I’m a 19th century American historian, and I’m still not on the Civil War bus…but I’ll take your advice on Hugo…

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