Hugo (Asa Butterfield) dangles from a clock like Harold Lloyd.
HUGO directed by Martin Scorsese, written by John Logan from Brian Selznick's novel, with Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley and Sacha Baron Cohen. A Paramount Pictures release. 126 minutes. Now playing. For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NNN
Hugo is the first Martin Scorsese picture that doesn't feel in the slightest like a Martin Scorsese picture. One of Terry Gilliam's, maybe. Or Jean-Pierre Jeunet, circa Amélie.
A burnished, digitally sweetened adaptation of Brian Selznick's children's book The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, the film takes place in and around a Paris train station somewhere in the late 1920s, where the eponymous urchin (Asa Butterfield) spends his days hidden in the station walls, maintaining the building's huge clocks. He filches what he needs - a croissant, a bottle of milk - from the vendors in the station and spends his nights trying to repair an odd mechanical man.
The automaton needs parts, which Hugo has been pilfering from the crotchety owner of the station's toy shop (Ben Kingsley). And when said owner catches Hugo, it triggers a series of discoveries that lead to, well, a heartfelt appeal for film preservation and a love song to pioneering film director Georges Méliès.
That's because Hugo isn't really the story of an urchin in a train station; that's just its starting point. You can feel Scorsese growing less and less interested in the emotional beats, because he's itching to get to the set pieces, where he can resurrect the images and techniques of the early silents he so clearly loves.
There's a magical scene in which Hugo takes the toy-maker's goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz, luminous and giddy) to her first cinema for a screening of Harold Lloyd's Safety Last, and a later sequence that finds Hugo himself dangling from a clock tower to avoid the station's dogged inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, doing his Sacha Baron Cohen thing). When the film dives into the past to watch Méliès making his own movies, Scorsese gets to bring that vanished past to life - in 3-D, even! - and give it the respect and glory it deserves.
The thing is, the perspective is off. Hugo and Isabelle have become spectators in someone else's story. I don't begrudge Scorsese for making this bauble; after decades of tireless advocacy for cinema history, it's probably the best way to get his message out. I just don't know whether it works as a movie.