Martin Scorsese's Hugo is a children's film for grown-ups — grown-up film buffs.
It's a charming and gorgeous exercise in the few corners of the medium where the Oscar-winning filmmaker has next to no experience — children's stories, comedy and 3-D. And even though it is too long and the master has yet to develop much of a comic touch, this adaptation of Brian Selznick's young-readers book The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a stunning exercise in 3-D and a delightful celebration of Scorsese's lifelong love of movies — something he, like Hugo, developed in childhood.
In the film, which opened Wednesday, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives in the bowels of a Paris train station between the World Wars. He is an orphan, carrying on the job a drunken uncle (Ray Winstone of The Departed) left him with: servicing the huge clocks there. He slips in and out of the station, getting by on stealing food and drink, hoping not to be noticed by the station inspector, Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen).
Hugo's a tinkerer, something he picked up from his late father (Jude Law). His favorite project is an old clockwork automaton, a wind-up man he tries to fix with parts stolen from the toy shop run by a cranky old man played by the great Ben Kingsley. When the old man catches Hugo, he seizes the boy's notebook, full of his father's drawings and repairs for the automaton. Hugo must work in the shop to win the notebook back, and even then, the mean old man might report him to the meaner wounded war vet Gustav, who patrols the station with a Doberman.
Isabel (Chloë Grace Moretz) calls the old man "Pappa Georges," and even she finds Hugo dubious company, an excuse to try out her burgeoning vocabulary: "You're nothing but a ... reprobate!"
Hugo must win her over (he takes her to the movies to see Harold Lloyd in Safety Last), elude Gustav and get back that notebook, his last tie to his dead father.
Scorsese uses this vintage Paris railway station set to stage marvelous 3-D chases on foot — his camera following Hugo up ladders, down alleys, weaving through crowds.
Hugo is the best-looking 3-D movie since last year's Alice in Wonderland. The director peoples the set with character players (Richard Griffiths, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee), and sets in motion subplots about lonely Gustav, the fate of Hugo's drunken uncle and clues to the automaton's and Pappa Georges' past.
Moretz, slinging an English accent, is her usual delightful self, showing Isabelle's love of words: "I think we have to be very clan-des-tine!" Cohen takes a number of scenes to make any sort of comic impression. And Kingsley makes the journey from ogre to charmer in his usual winning fashion.
But the story — period details and mysteries notwithstanding — is too slight to support this length. It's an 80-minute bonbon struggling to break out of a two-hour soufflé.
Still, movie buffs, especially fans of early cinema history, will be transfixed by scenes in the latter acts — movie-making as it was being invented. It's why Scorsese chose to make the film, and it's where his heart truly is with this material. And it's no surprise that this corner of his wondrous little picture is where he chose to take a cameo, immortalizing himself in the history of the medium he grew up loving and mastering.