It's not hard to see why Martin Scorsese fell in love with The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick's Caldecott Medal-winning graphic novel for kids.
For decades, Scorsese has devoted great energy and effort to the preservation of old films, and in Selznick's voluminous fantasy, French magician- turned - moviemaker Georges Méliès not only figures prominently, but so, too, does his work. Among Méliès' dreamlike flights of filmic whimsy to show up in the book: "A Trip to the Moon," that 1902 one-reel gem with the giant rocket flying right into the Man in the Moon's eye.
A 3-D spectacle (yes, be sure to put on those 3-D spectacles!), Scorsese's Hugo is a state-of-the-art affair, an epic adaptation of Selznick's pretty-epic-itself tome, full of dazzling visuals and rapturous tributes to Méliès and the magic of movies.
"Isabelle, do you want to have an adventure?" Hugo (Asa Butterfield), the orphaned lad who lives in a grand Paris railway station, asks his newfound friend. She, of course, nods yes, and the two are off and running through 1930s Paris rues - to catch a festival of silent film. Charley Chase, Harold Lloyd - here they come.
Hugo is the son of a clockmaker (Jude Law), a kindly, bespectacled man who teaches his son the beauty of cogs, wheels, and mechanical synchronicity. The father is at work on an automaton - a self-operating machine in human form - when he dies in a fire. Hugo goes off (with his father's notebook, and with the automaton) to live with his drunkard uncle (Ray Winstone,) a man responsible for keeping the clocks running in the Paris station. They live high, high above the stalls and cafes, the bustling main concourse and train gates, on catwalks and platforms with windows looking out across the city; the giant gears turn, the clock faces casting light into the room.
If this isn't cinematic, I don't know what is, and Scorsese - working with teams of visual effects artists, makes the most of it. The vertiginous look-downs at the Escher-like stairwell are breathtaking, triply so in 3-D. (And when, toward the film's end, Scorsese unspools some classic Méliès montages, they too are in 3-D. Vintage silents, comin' at ya!)
So, all of this is reason enough for movie buffs to check out Hugo. But what about the kids and families who have no connection to Méliès, little familiarity with Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton? Will Hugo keep them in their seats?
I'm not sure. For all its eye-popping flourishes, there's a preciousness to Scorsese's kid-pic treatment. Exploring a new niche for the first time, the man who made Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, and The Departed hasn't figured out how to connect emotionally with the adventures, and dilemmas, of his preteen protagonists. (Isabelle is played by Kick-Ass' Chloë Grace Moretz, looking like a junior Ingrid Bergman - she's got the face of a Golden Era star.) The supporting characters - a buffoonish gendarme (Sacha Baron Cohen) obsessed with sending Hugo off to an orphanage, a kindly flower lady (Emily Mortimer), a crumpled bookstore owner (Christopher Lee), and an older Madame and Monsieur whose romantic assignations are thwarted by a testy dachshund - are cartoonish, too cute. Ben Kingsley, wearing a goatee and a look of woe, is Georges Méliès; his film company long ago went bankrupt, the films themselves lost, and now he toils at a toymaker's booth in the train station. It is his discovery of Hugo's father's notebook, with its ingenious, da Vinci-like diagrams of automatons, that sets the story in motion, so to speak.
Hugo is long, and a little twee (like the soon-coming Adventures of Tintin, this is a story set in France where everyone has English accents). But it is lovely. And there's something to be said for loveliness, and something to be said for the loveliness that can be realized on a screen. As they say in Hugo, movies have "the power to capture dreams."