For decades, director Martin Scorsese has been a dedicated film preservationist and an enthusiastic cheerleader for early cinema, but Hugo may be the first time he has aimed his pro–silent movie message squarely at children. It’s an odd moral for kids (as opposed to film students or cinephiles), and it makes for an odd film: broad in its style and messaging and self-indulgent in its pacing, yet also magnificently cinematic in Scorsese’s inimitable way and charmingly earnest about its subject matter. The idiosyncratic result sometimes plods, but more often it takes flight, particularly after it begins its exploration of the extraordinary films of Georges Méliès. I’m not sure whether I would have enjoyed Hugo as a child, but as an adult, I eventually fell under its spell.
The hero of the film, based on Brian Selznick’s Caldecott-winning book, is Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a young orphan who lives in a 1930s Paris railway station, where he maintains the clocks, hides from the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), and attempts to repair a mysterious automaton left to him by his beloved father (Jude Law). When Georges (Ben Kingsley), the melancholy owner of a toyshop, catches Hugo stealing gears for his secret project, Hugo meets Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), Georges’s goddaughter, another bright, curious orphan. The two become friends—Isabelle sharing her love of books, Hugo introducing her to movies—and eventually discover a connection between the automaton and Papa Georges.
The movie spends a great deal of time establishing its setting: the impossibly beautiful railway station and the impossibly elaborate clockwork between the walls. Happily rejecting realism in favor of something far more mythic and arabesque, Hugo flies among enormous turning gears, slips in and out of flashbacks, and dreamily casts an eye on a few characters who would, in another film, have been extras, but here are graceful sketches played by the likes of Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, and Emily Mortimer. The deliberate pace, though expertly modulated, tries my patience somewhat, but Scorsese provides plenty of lovely imagery and emotive faces to sigh over.
Besides, the heart of the movie is worth the wait. Once Papa Georges is revealed to be the inventive, visionary director Georges Méliès, the movie’s once shallow wistfulness deepens considerably. Kingsley, who has a better grasp of the grandly theatric emotional language of Hugo than either of the child actors, embodies Méliès with potent fervency, and Helen McCrory gives a luminous performance as Jeanne, Georges’s wife and former leading lady. When those two take center stage, amid Scorsese’s dazzling recreations of Méliès’s already stunning films, Hugo finally achieves the magic it’s been shooting for all along.