Our journey in “Hugo” begins with a light snowfall enveloping the Eiffel Tower — an image unremarkable in so many ways, except that these flakes, hypnotically descending from a winter sky as they gather on the nearby Montparnasse railway station, seem to drift off the screen and into our laps.
It is magical sleight of hand, a 3-D illusion masterfully created by a director, Martin Scorsese, who might seem unlikely to embrace a technology some dismiss as a gimmick. But why wouldn’t Scorsese, still a passionate student of film at 69, want to explore every possibility of his chosen medium?
Still, a children’s fable, from the man who gave us “Taxi Driver” and “Goodfellas”? It might seem unusual for the native New Yorker to stray so far from his perceived comfort zone, the dark alleys of the criminal underworld.
But why should it? How quickly we forget departures such as “The Age of Innocence,” his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s period romance, or “Kundun,” his portrait of the 14th Dalai Lama.
“Hugo,” inspired by Brian Selznick’s fictionalized history of turn-of-the-century filmmaker Georges Méliès, is no simple fairy tale.
A sumptuous fantasy about an orphan determined to keep alive his late father’s inventive spirit, the movie is also an appeal for film preservation from one of cinema’s most heralded storytellers.
Scorsese says he felt “an immediate connection to the story of a boy, his loneliness, his association with cinema and the machinery of creativity. Reading the book to my daughter was like rediscovering the work of art again, but through the eyes of a child.”
Scorsese sought to create a heightened, self-contained universe set in 1931 Paris. To play Méliès, who directed 531 films before 1914, only to have his stock seized by the French army and melted into boot heels during World War I, he called on “Shutter Island” star Sir Ben Kingsley, whom Scorsese calls “one of the greats.”
Kingsley, 67, who bristles at the perception of “Hugo” as mere family entertainment, repays the compliment. “Marty is a genius who directs with empathy and compassion, and to make a movie about saving film — he’s the perfect man for the job,” he says.