Martin Scorsese approaches “Hugo,” his delightfully inventive adaptation of Brian Selznick’s elaborately illustrated children’s novel, with a profound sense of wonder, and the feeling is contagious.
Here, in the bittersweet saga of a clockmaker’s orphaned son who reconnects with his father through the earliest machinery of cinema, we find one of the director’s most personal stories to date, a love letter not only to his craft, but also to one of its earliest innovators, Georges Méliès.
A onetime stage magician who brought his wizardry to the screen, “Papa” Georges (played by Ben Kingsley) directed more than 500 films, revolutionizing special effects and cinematography, before his works were melted down by the French army to make boots for World War I soldiers.
His movies gone and his spirit broken, he sold toys in a Paris railway station until his death in 1938.
Scorsese could have made a very different movie based on Méliès’ remarkable and ultimately tragic life. But, taking his cues from Selznick’s fictionalized narrative, he eases us into the filmmaker’s world through his precarious friendship with Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphan and petty thief who raids the old man’s toy cabinet for spare parts.
Hugo’s intentions are noble. After losing his mechanically minded father in a fire, he resolves to complete the restoration of a mysterious treasure — an automaton — that had captured the old man’s imagination.
All he needs are the proper tools, and for reasons initially unclear, Georges and his goddaughter (Chloë Grace Moretz) have them.
That’s just the starting point for the grand adventure that unfolds in “Hugo,” already hailed by another cinematic groundbreaker — James Cameron — as the finest application of 3-D technology ever committed to film.
High praise indeed, coming from the creator of “Avatar.” Whether or not it is overstated, “Hugo” is a bold, beautiful work of art, a vibrant rendering of 1930s Paris and a richly textured portrait whose subjects seem to jump off the screen.
Here, 3-D serves the story, not simply as a visual accoutrement, but also as a tribute to the sleight of hand that was Méliès’ genius.
“Hugo” is family-friendly, too, though it may be best appreciated by adults with a passion for cinema. For Hugo, a lonely fixer of broken machines and fractured souls, and Georges, the man he is unwittingly entrusted to save, movies are a healing and uniting force.
Scorsese’s unsubtle plea — that those movies be cherished and preserved — is as compelling as his aesthetic poetry.
Starring Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz
Written by John Logan
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Running time 2 hours 7 minutes