It’s a charming and quite gorgeous exercise in thew few corners of the medium where the Oscar-winning filmmaker has next to no experience — children’s stories, comedy and 3D. And even though it is too long and the master has yet to develop much of a comic touch, this adaptation of Brian Selznick’s “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” is a stunning exercise in 3D and a delightful celebration of Scorsese’s lifelong love of the movies, something he, like Hugo, developed on childhood.
Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives in the bowels of a Paris train station in between the World Wars. He is an orphan who hides out, carrying on the job a drunken uncle left him with — servicing the huge clocks there. He slips in and out of the station, getting by on stealing food and drink, hoping not to be noticed by the station inspector, Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen).
Hugo’s a tinkerer, something he picked up from his late father (Jude Law). His favorite project is an old clockwork automaton, a wind-up man he tries to fix with parts stolen from the toy shop run by a cranky old man played by the great Ben Kingsley. When the old man catches Hugo, he seizes the boy’s notebook, full of his father’s drawings and fixes for the automaton. Hugo must work in the shop to win the notebook back, and even then, the mean old man may turn him in to the meaner wounded war vet Gustav, who patrols the station with a Doberman.
Isabel (Chloe Moretz) calls the old man “Pappa Georges,” and even she finds Hugo dubious company, an excuse to try out her burgeoning vocabulary — “You’re nothing but a…reprobate!”
Hugo must win her over (He takes her to the movies to see Harold Lloyd in “Safety Last”), elude Gustav and get back that notebook — his last tie to his dead father.
Scorsese uses this vintage Paris railway station set to stage marvelous 3D chases, on foot — his 3d camera following Hugo up ladders, down alleys, weaving through crowds. “Hugo” is the best looking 3D movie since “Alice in Wonderland.” The director peoples the set with character players (Richard Griffiths, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee), and sets in motion subplots about the lonely Gustav, the fate of Hugo’s drunken uncle (Ray Winstone of “The departed”) and clues to the automaton’s and Pappa Georges’ past.
Moretz, slinging an English accent, is her usual delightful self, showing Isabel’s love of words — “I think we have to be very clan-DES-tine!”
Cohen takes a number of scenes to make any sort of comic impression. And Kingsley makes the journey from ogre to charmer in his usual winning fashion.
But the story — period details and mysteries notwithstanding — is too slight to support this length. It’s an 80 minute bon bon struggling to break out of a two hour and ten minute souffle.
Still, movie buffs, especially fans of early cinema history, will be transfixed by scenes in the latter acts — movie-making, as it was being invented. It’s why Scorsese chose to make the film. It’s where his heart truly is with this material. And it’s no surprise that this corner of his wondrous little picture is where he chose to take a cameo, immortalizing himself in the history of the medium he grew up loving and mastering.
MPAA Rating: PG for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Chloe Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, jude Law
Credits: Directed by Martin Scorsese, written by John Logan, based on the Brian Selznick novel. A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 2:10.