Of the Oscar-nominated films about a kid whose late father left behind a key, this is the one that’s worth watching. For me, Hugo just didn’t work, nor emotionally connect. This film did both, and in 2D.
Yes, it’s flawed and manipulative, but a lot of its criticisms are unfounded. Setting a film around the events of “9/11” is a risky thing to do, as it can be (and, in this case, has been) accused of using the events to create an emotional bond that the characters/story should have managed on their own. As far as I’m concerned, the film has succeeded.
The emotional weight in the story comes from the emotional connect/disconnect between father and son, mother and son, husband and wife, grandson and grandparent, but, most overwhelmingly, the emotional bond that can be achieved between complete strangers.
The inclusion of the 9/11 events are important, however. This is the tale of a child wandering the boroughs of New York, on a mission to extract personal details from complete strangers. The fact that his father died in 9/11 serves to make these strangers more open to his quest, rather than some cheap attempt to emotionally manipulate the audience into more sympathy. This accusation has been levied- unfairly- by many a sniffy critic, but it’s certainly no cheaper nor emotionally manipulative than War Horse, even if the latter was more successful.
The performances are strong, and not just from Supporting Actor nominee Max Von Sydow. Hanks and Bullock are given very little to do, but their brief appearances do still manage an emotional weight. Bullock’s late revelation does generate a little scepticism, even if it does go some way to justify why someone would allow their young son to walk the streets of New York alone. Sydow’s character, whilst adding a quirky charm that lights up the screen, ultimately adds nothing to the story, especially his “so what?” twist regarding his potential connection to the boy (which is never confirmed anyway).
Oskar, the boy, is something of an acquired taste. He has some form of social disconnection- Autism? Aspergers?- and his rapid-fire delivery (not to mention that damn tambourine) can irritate more than charm. But Thomas Horn does a phenomenal job, given the complexity of his role, even if you ignore his age and the fact that this is his first acting role. Director Stephen Daldry, of course, discovered a young Jamie Bell, and appears to have found another potential star. He’s the man that directed both Nicole Kidman and Kate Winslet toward their elusive Oscars, and, again, his direction is very assured. Once more he has made a worthier contender for Best Picture than a few of its rivals.