A passionate brief for film preservation wrapped in a fanciful tale of childhood intrigue and adventure, Hugo dazzlingly conjoins the earliest days of cinema with the latest big-screen technology. At once Martin Scorsese's least characteristic film and his most deeply felt, this opulent adaptation of Brian Selznick's extensively illustrated 2007 novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret is ostensibly a children's and family film, albeit one that will play best to sophisticated kids and culturally inclined adults. Paramount has no choice but to go for broke by selling this most ingenious of 3D movies to the widest possible public, hoping critical acclaim and novelty will pique the curiosity of all audiences.
Like so many of the most popular and enduring fictions revolving around children, from Dickens to Harry Potter, Hugo is about orphans and castoffs, kids who must scheme, fight and resist authority to make their way in life. With exceptional imagination, first Selznick and now Scorsese and scenarist John Logan have found a way to connect their resourceful leading characters with one of the great early figures of cinema: Georges Melies, most famous as the originator of the science fiction film with his 1902 movie A Trip to the Moon and the first man to recognize the connection between cinema and dreams.
In a moment that alone justifies the recent resurgence of 3D, Scorsese re-creates the legendary presentation of the Lumiere brothers' 1897 film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat -- at which audiences flinched in horror as a train arriving at a station appeared to be headed right at them -- in a way that captures the reaction the brief clip was described as evoking. For anyone remotely interested in film history, Hugo must be seen in 3D if only for this interlude, which the director and cinematographer Robert Richardson pulled off through an impeccably precise combination of framing and timing.
The richness of detail and evident care that has been extended are of a sort possible only when a top director has a free hand to do everything he or she feels necessary to entirely fulfill a project's ambitions. As has been seen all too often, this level of carte blanche has its pitfalls in indulgence, extravagance and waste. In this case, however, the obvious expenditures of time, care and money would seem to have been devoted to matters directly connected to Scorsese's overriding obsessions with film -- the particulars of its creation, its importance to the inner lives of those who love it and the preservation of film itself and the reputations of its practitioners.
The orphan here is Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a prepubescent youngster who, after the death of his beloved father (Jude Law), is grudgingly taken under wing by a dissolute uncle (Ray Winstone) who tends to the complicated system of clocks at a major Paris train station circa 1931 (as specified in Selznick's book, though not in the film). The labyrinth of gears, cranks, shafts and stairs that comprise this hidden chamber is explored in an extraordinary shot that winds up through it, and when the old man expires, Hugo, with nowhere else to go, surreptitiously takes charge of the clocks, unbeknownst to the vigilant station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen).
When the coast is clear, Hugo slips out of a wall grating to snatch something to eat and runs afoul of a sour old man (Ben Kingsley) who tends a toy shop in the station. He also meets another station dweller, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who has been raised by the old man, her godfather and his wife. A precocious lass who, in a nice invention of Logan's, likes to use big words, Isabelle is a bookworm with bright eyes and a wonderful smile who has no complaints except that her protectors won't permit her to see movies. Hugo remedies this by taking her to a showing of 1923's Safety Last!, famous for the image of Harold Lloyd dangling from a clock over the streets of Los Angeles.
Hugo dares to bring Isabelle to his private lair, albeit with an ulterior motive. A heart-shaped key she wears around her neck looks exactly like what he needs to activate his primary inheritance from his father -- an elaborate unfinished automaton he has been tinkering with that he suspects might provide him with vital information. The upshot is that Isabelle's guardian is none other than Melies, the film pioneer thought to have died during World War I. Embittered and forgotten, Melies destroyed his own work, and the two children set about engineering the resurrection of the old gent's reputation while restoring his sense of purpose in life.
This impulse to rehabilitate a filmmaker and his work lies at the core of Hugo, and as it pushes into its second hour, Scorsese imaginatively and exactingly re-creates the shooting of scenes from several Melies films, replicating their extraordinary sets, costumes and "special effects."
By comparison, the kid-in-peril interludes feel both obligatory, as something to engage younger audiences, and padded to give screen time to Cohen, who delivers an arch performance that is faintly amusing and slightly off-key. Overkill sets in after too many chases; an under-two-hour running time should have been a goal.
Although he comes through with a winning performance, Butterfield (Son of Rambow, The Wolfman) seems a bit stiff and uncertain in the early going. By contrast, Moretz (Kick-Ass, Let Me In), with her beaming warmth and great smile, is captivating. Refusing to sentimentalize, Kingsley catches the deep hurt and eventual pride of an artist long but not forever erased from history.
Craft and technical achievements are of the highest order, combining to create an immaculate present to film lovers everywhere. It would be hard to say enough on behalf of Richardson's cinematography, Dante Ferretti's production design, Sandy Powell's costumes, Rob Legato's extensive visual effects, Thelma Schoonmaker's editing, Howard Shore's almost-constant score and the army of technical experts who made Scorsese's perfectionist wishes come true.
Release date Nov. 23 (Paramount)
Cast Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jude Law
Director Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter John Logan, based on the novel by Brian Selznick