Director Martin Scorsese has said that he was drawn to "Hugo" because he wanted to make a movie his preteen daughter could actually watch, but that doesn't mean the filmmaker of "Raging Bull," "Goodfellas" and "Shutter Island" has come down with a case of the cutes for his first family film. Though it's not always a perfect marriage of material and director, "Hugo" turns out to be a fun experiment from Scorsese, and while it's not quite as out-of-character as "Kundun" or "Age of Innocence" seemed at the time, a lot of the enjoyment comes from watching an established legend -- now almost 70 -- still pushing himself in new ways. Deep down, though, Scorsese is making a movie about what he knows, so it shouldn't be a surprise that "Hugo" is really about his undying love affair with the movies.
"Hugo" is based on the novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," and it stars relative unknown Asa Butterfield as Hugo, a scrappy orphan living in a Paris train station in between the two world wars. Still mourning the death of his beloved father (Jude Law), Hugo now has to steal to survive, outwitting a bird-brained cop (Sacha Baron Cohen) who patrols the station. Hugo soon befriends a precocious girl named Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who lives with a surly old man (Ben Kingsley) who sells knickknacks at the train station and considers Hugo little more than a petty thief. But thanks to an automaton left behind by Hugo's father, the boy discovers a secret about the old man that changes both of their lives.
That secret -- which I don't want to spoil if you don't already know -- leads Hugo on an adventure into cinema's earliest days, and it's here that "Hugo" is at its very best. It's commonplace for characters in movies to watch old films together, but "Hugo" goes one better, recreating the atmosphere surrounding the turn-of-the-century silent era in which movies were a brand new art form that were as captivating and exciting as a live magic show. Scorsese, a renowned champion for film preservation, clearly springs to life in these moments, drenching the flashback sequences with such obvious love that it's both sentimental and also powerfully emotional.
If the rest of "Hugo" was as captivating, we'd really have something: a feast for the eyes as well as the soul. But not unlike his longtime friend Steven Spielberg with the uneven "Adventures of Tintin," Scorsese has taken the 3D plunge with "Hugo," producing a visually dazzling movie that doesn't have the same sharpness when it comes to narrative. Though the film is named after him, Hugo is probably only the third-most-interesting character here. He's beaten by a hair by Isabelle, but they're both dwarfed by Kingsley's shopkeeper, who is poignantly running away from a past that still haunts him. Butterfield has appeared in "The Wolfman" and "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," but while he has an empathetic, expressive face, he's not a particularly exciting hero. I found myself much more drawn into the world of old movies than I was to Hugo's plight, and I have the sneaking suspicion that Scorsese was as well.
This is to take nothing away from how incredibly gorgeous "Hugo" is. Working with frequent collaborators cinematographer Robert Richardson and production designer Dante Ferretti, Scorsese gives us an environment that feels part-Dickens, part-enchanted fairy tale. It's a movie that's incredible to look at, and the 3D works wonderfully to submerge you into a Paris of the 1930s that might be even more hopelessly dreamlike than the one in Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris." But Scorsese can't always transport that magic into the storytelling. The humor -- aimed at kids but thankfully without the usual crassness -- feels a little broad and stiff. (This is felt most potently in Baron Cohen's almost Clouseau-like performance.) Still, no matter what project Scorsese picks, he's led by his passions. If he can turn impressionable young people onto the wonder of movies with "Hugo," more power to him. But wait till they get a little older and check out some of his really great other films: Then they'll be hooked for life.