BEFORE "HUGO," I think the closest thing that Martin Scorsese made to a children's movie was "Taxi Driver," featuring Jodie Foster, circa "Bugsy Malone."
The reason we're intrigued by the idea of Scorsese making a holiday/family tentpole like "Hugo" is that in his cinematic world, children are as rare as unicorns.
And when you do see them - think of young Henry Hill in the prologue to "Goodfellas" - they do not have children's lives. They run errands for local mobsters. They wait impatiently for the onset of adulthood.
As did Scorsese. He's talked candidly of his childhood as an asthmatic shut-in, devouring movies on television, venturing out to watch them in theaters and art houses and repertory houses, falling in love with movies in all their cultural, historical breadth.
It's that love affair that's the actual subject of "Hugo," a movie for grown-up film buffs, but one children can enjoy, so long as they don't mind a history lesson on the founding fathers of cinema, complete with 3-D visual aids.
The title character (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan who in 1931 lives in a Paris train station, stealing food to survive, winding the clocks (a family tradition), living among their interlocking gears and wheels.
Two things fascinate the boy. One is the puzzle of the broken automaton, the mechanical man, he inherited from his watchmaker father. The other is the riddle of the station's mysterious toy merchant (Ben Kingsley) that also fascinates the man's pretty granddaughter (Chloe Moretz).
The boy's obsessions turn out to be related, and give Scorsese (a crusading film archivist and restorer) the pretext to explore the story of film pioneer Georges Melies, whose hand-tinted, turn-of-the-century silent movies are affectionately recreated.
"Hugo" is alive with love of cinema - Scorsese uses the narrative framework to revisit silent movie mileposts, like silent comic Harold Lloyd or "The Great Train Robbery." He then works these elements in, reinventing them with 3-D (Howard Shore's terrific score combines silent movie expressiveness with Parisian flavors to suit the context).
"Hugo" is not-so-alive with feeling for its younger characters. The performances of the junior players feel very directed - even Moretz, as good a young actor as there is, like she's telegraphing emotions. You can sense, in "Hugo," that enchantment is not Scorsese's default setting. He labors to slow the movie down and make it linear. It trips up his natural rhythm as a storyteller, often expressed in the way his movies are so brilliantly and cleverly edited.
And I don't think I needed Michael Stuhlbarg as a film historian, gushing the end of "Hugo" about how wonderful Melies is.
That's Scorsese's job, and he's already done it visually, using up-to-date 3-D technology (this is the most immersive live-action 3-D since "Avatar") to remind today's audience of how much, and how little, the essential magic of movies has changed.