If you've never read Brian Selznick's award-winning children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, hearing the news that Martin Scorsese was going to adapt the family-friendly classic probably sounded like a terrible mistake or a bad joke -- nobody expects the man responsible for Goodfellas, The Departed, and Taxi Driver to churn out the kind of movie that we associate with fast-food tie-ins. But for those who were familiar with Selznick's wondrous celebration of cinema's early days, that announcement couldn't have been more natural or expected. Thankfully, the movie delivers on its promise.
The film stars Asa Butterfield, a young actor with the kind of eyes that trigger protective and parental instincts in any viewer, as Hugo Cabret, an orphan boy who lives in a Parisian train station in the 1930s. Sent to live with his drunken uncle after his father's death in a fire, Hugo learns how to wind the massive clocks that run throughout the station. When the uncle disappears one day, Hugo decides to maintain the clocks on his own, hoping nobody will catch on to his squatting in the station.
His natural aptitude for engineering leads him to steal gears, tools, and other items from a toy-shop owner who maintains a storefront in the station. Hugo needs these purloined pieces in order to rebuild a mechanical man that was left in his father's care at a nearby museum -- the restoration was a project father and son did together.
When Georges (Ben Kingsley), the old man who runs the toy stand, catches on to the thievery, he threatens to turn Hugo over to the station's lone police officer (Sacha Baron Cohen, stealing every one of his scenes with a performance that recalls Peter Sellers), whose ineptitude is matched only by his desire to send any parentless child he finds in his station to the orphanage. But Hugo's run-in with Georges leads to a friendship with the elderly gentleman's goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who unknowingly possesses the last item Hugo needs to make the mechanical man work again.
While there's a great deal of plot in Hugo, the movie is primary a sensory experience. Scorsese's artful use of 3D turns the elaborate clockworks at the station into a labyrinth that Hugo traverses with a physical abandon that's amplified both by his age and his fear of being discovered. This is one of the more tactile films you'll see -- smoke, snowflakes, and dust particles blow through the frame, enhancing the 3D effects not because they fly in your face, but because they add depth to the images. If the film were any busier it would become exhausting to look at because there's just so much to take in, but right from the start, Scorsese balances all of the visual elements perfectly with a shot that compares the layout of Paris' streets to the gears of a clock.
The visual splendor, of course, isn't an end unto itself. It's employed to tell a story very close to the director's heart -- a tale about finding and caring for old movies. Georges turns out to have had quite the fascinating life before ending up at the station, and while it's unfair to spoil the surprise for those who don't know, it's reasonable to say that Hugo is Scorsese's loving tribute to the building blocks of modern cinema. It's a history lesson that allows the modern master director to re-create some of the most-memorable images from the art form's first decade, as well as craft a tender movie about creating a family.
The thought of Martin Scorsese fashioning a family-friendly film released into the thick of the overstuffed Thanksgiving movie season is just as odd as David Lynch making a movie for Disney -- but The Straight Story turned out pretty well for the Eraserhead auteur and the Mouse House. Hugo is also a success, a movie that will probably appeal more to hardcore film nerds than to nine-year-olds, unless of course that youngster will grow into a movie geek. If that's the case, Hugo will be a touchstone in their cinematic development.