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Review: Hugo

Martin Scorsese pens love letter to silent cinema with 3-D family film

The dawn of cinema took place at some point during the mid-1970s. At least, that's the impression you get from Internet film commentary and its multitude of list-icles with names like "The Floppiest Flops of Movie History," which only go back as far as the first Star Wars.

Martin Scorsese's family film Hugo works best as a much-needed, heartfelt love letter to the movies of nearly a century ago. Ironically, a 3-D movie with lots of CGI embellishment pays tribute to popular films that lacked sound or color. Hugo offers young people a warm introduction to motion-picture pioneers, particularly the work of Georges Méliès, a former stage magician who all but invented special effects.

A consummate movie buff, Scorsese shows so much love for Méliès that he leaves little left over for the orphan boy who gives Hugo its name. Played by Asa Butterfield, Hugo Cabret lives in the walls of a Parisian train station in the early 1930s. Hugo pilfers his meals, keeps the station's massive clocks ticking, and devotes his hours to rebuilding a mysterious automaton. Hugo's late father (Jude Law) found the mechanical man at a museum before dying in a fire, and Hugo believes that if he can repair the clockwork robot, he'll find his father's last message.

Hugo frequently steals cogs and gears from wind-up machines at the station toy shop, but incurs the wrath of the elderly shopkeep, Georges (Ben Kingsley), who confiscates Hugo's father's sketchbook. Hugo enlists Georges' goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Moretz of Kickass) to help retrieve the precious pages, and bright, bookish Isabelle obliges, eager at the chance to have a real-life adventure. Can the kids unlock the twin riddles of the automaton and Georges' secret past? And can Hugo stay one step ahead of the zealous station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen)?

Based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret, "A Novel in Words and Pictures" by Brian Selznick, Hugo presents a bittersweet, child's-eye caper story that moves in fits and starts. Romantic subplots involving various employees at the station (played by Emily Mortimer, Richard Griffiths, and Frances de la Tour) attempt to match the sweetness of Amelie, but often come across as labored. Plus, the film feels padded with canine sight gags, superfluous dream scenes, and repetitious flashbacks. Twice we see turn-of-the-century movie audiences panic at the sight of the Lumière Brothers' "Train Arriving at a Station."

Some heavyweight directors bring depth and texture to children's stories. John Sayles' The Secret of Roan Inish and Agnieszka Holland's The Secret Garden begin in grim, gritty circumstances before building to happy resolutions. Scorsese gives Hugo such an idealized, storybook sheen that the settings seldom appear real. A dizzying tracking shot opens the film by swooping into the station, over the railroad tracks, through the building, and into Hugo's maze-line tunnels, but resembles one of those motion-capture features like The Polar Express. The train station set could be the lobby of a luxury hotel. Even the dirt looks clean.

Nevertheless, Hugo features lovely performances from its leading actors, with Kingsley's dignity lending depth to Georges' angry despair. Scorsese clearly enjoys playing with the 3-D gimmick, finding more interesting uses of the extra dimension than most of this year's other 3-D films combined. At one point, when the station inspector leans in menacingly to Hugo, his head and hat brim seem to jut further and further off the screen. Most 3-D movies promise such moments but fail to deliver them.

When the film focuses on early film culture, from Harold Lloyd's Safety Last to the heady days of Méliès' studio, it attains a lyricism that the rest of the film seldom matches. There's a great 90-minute film within Hugo's two-hour running time, and it's impassioned nostalgia might leave preschoolers cold. Hugo provides a fine moviegoing choice for the rest of the family — grandparents included — and with luck convince audiences that there are decades of great films out there just waiting to be watched.