By now, the story of Martin Scorsese has become legend: As an asthmatic kid, he watched from his bedroom window in Little Italy as other children played on the street, and he retreated into the fantastical worlds conjured up by filmmakers like Alexander Korda. Based on Brian Selznick’s popular illustrated book The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, Scorsese’s enchanting Hugo burnishes that legend, filtering a whimsical half-fiction about silent pioneer Georges Méliès through a childhood of loneliness salved by the movies. In other words, it’s both a movie about young Scorsese and a movie that young Scorsese would have loved, while also bearing the distinct signature of the filmmaking world’s most passionate historian and preservationist. And at a time when film itself seems headed toward extinction, it celebrates the mechanical wonder of celluloid running through a projector at 24 frames per second—during a period where the phenomenon wasn’t taken for granted. (There’s irony to Scorsese shooting this homage in digital 3-D, but no doubt a magician like Méliès would approve of the innovation.)
Descending on a Paris that seems like it came out of a snow globe, Hugo settles on a gorgeous train station in the early 1930s, where the eponymous character, played by Asa Butterfield, lives among the hand-cranked clocks he’s maintained since his uncle died. Méliès, whose 1902 cinematic staple “A Trip To The Moon” opened up more dreamlike possibilities for the medium, stopped making movies in 1913 and wound up selling toys in obscurity at the train station. As played by Ben Kingsley, he’s a caustically bitter shopkeep who’s so disillusioned by his past that he’s forbidden his adopted daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz) from going to the movies. But worlds collide when Butterfield and Moretz set to work on repairing a broken automaton and follow a course that takes them back to Méliés and the birth of cinema itself.
Given that Hugo is about machines, it’s probably fitting that it takes a little time to get the gears humming in synchronicity, though Scorsese’s transporting use of 3-D helps allay the clunkier bits of backstory and exposition. Once Méliès is unmasked, however, Hugo shifts into an ecstatic storybook history of the movies, asserting the vitality of century-plus-old benchmarks while offering a window into Méliès’ bountiful imagination. It’s a complex fusion of film history and personal history, filled with dazzling embellishments and unabashed sentiment about the glories of cinema. Decades in Hollywood haven’t whittled down Scorsese’s boyish enthusiasm about the medium, which fully animates Hugo.