If the idea of Martin Scorsese directing a children’s film — in 3D, no less! — intrigues you in the slightest, then run, don’t walk, to see Hugo, and bring the family. But to write off this dreamy, overwhelmingly beautiful movie as mere kid’s stuff would be an injustice. This adaptation of Brian Selznick’s illustrated children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret (John Logan wrote the screenplay) is as much of a personal Scorsese picture as Raging Bull or Taxi Driver. In some ways, this could be his most heartfelt movie.
Right from the opening shot — the gears of a clock dissolve into a dazzling vista of nighttime Paris circa 1931, then the camera swoops down through a bustling train station — Hugo makes it clear Scorsese means business. The film’s first half is actually its weakest, coming off as meandering Dickens-lite. We meet young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who keeps the clocks running at the station; the stern vendor (Ben Kingsley) who catches the boy stealing; the adventurous girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) who becomes Hugo’s best friend; and the station police officer (Borat’s Sacha Baron Cohen) who specializes in plucking urchins off the street and shipping them to the orphanage.
The plot Hugo initially gives us — the boy wants to repair an invention left behind by his late father (Jude Law) – doesn’t seem to merit Scorsese’s extravagant direction. But the extravagant visuals keep you riveted. The color palette relies on bold colors (lots of blue and gold) that infuse the movie with a classic, timeless feel; the detail is so precise that you notice the filament inside light bulbs; a dream sequence in which a runaway locomotive crashes through the station is a bravura piece of filmmaking.
Then the film begins to reveal its final destination, and suddenly Scorsese’s interest in this material — and the care and grace with which the movie has been made — suddenly makes sense. It doesn’t spoil anything to reveal that Georges Méliès, the French filmmaker who practically invented the art of special effects, is an actual character in the film, and that Hugo gradually turns into a celebration of his work and of the magical possibilities of cinema. I’m not sure whether kids will get a kick out of watching little Hugo reenact the scene from the 1923 silent classic Safety Last in which Harold Lloyd dangled from the hands of a giant clock. Nor do I know if children will appreciate the way Scorsese pays homage to Méliès’ work with simple tricks, such as filming his actors through a fish tank to make them seem like they’re standing on the ocean floor.
But I can’t imagine any film buff not being thrilled by what Scorsese accomplishes in Hugo. And the 3D! This is the first of two 3D movies coming this year made by a legendary director (Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin arrives in December.) Both films prove that the medium of cinema really can be an art form, as long as the director has vision — and the knowhow to capture it on celluloid. Hugo is one of the most breathtaking 3D pictures ever made: From the snowflakes that seem to drift off the screen onto your lap to the gorgeous recreations of ancient movie treasures, Hugo conveys the excitement and curiosity of a master filmmaker adding a new tool to his box of toys. “Come and dream with me,” Méliès implores his audience in a scene late in the film. With Hugo, Scorsese is extending the same invitation to us.
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Ray Winstone, Christopher Lee, Jude Law.
Director: Martin Scorsese.
Screenwriter: John Logan. Based on the book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick.
Producers: Graham King, Tim Headington, Martin Scorsese, Johnny Depp.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 121 minutes. No offensive material. Opens Wed. Nov. 23 at area theaters.