Martin Scorsese's first foray into big-budget family filmmaking — as well as his inaugural effort in 3-D — Hugo is a personal statement disguised as a sellout.
Based on Brian Selznick's 2007 kids' book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Hugo centers on its title character, played by Asa Butterfield, a pre-pubescent orphan squatting in a train station, circa 1930, in the section of Movie Paris where everyone speaks English in a British accent. By day, when not dodging an orphan-hunting station constable (Sacha Baron Cohen), Hugo secretly maintains the station's clocks. By night, he attempts to fix an automaton, the only keepsake the boy has from his watchmaker father (Jude Law, seen in flashback), who died suddenly and mysteriously. A half-life-size humanoid reminiscent of the robots in Metropolis, the automaton's hand is built to grip a pen, and Hugo has become convinced that if he could get that hand to work, it would write out a message from his dad.
Hugo's obsession with the writing robot leads him to habitually steal small machine parts from the station's toy shop, which is operated by a gruff old man (Ben Kingsley) called Papa Georges by his charge, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a precocious, beret-topped sprite about Hugo's age. Hugo and Isabelle become inextricably linked when together they discover that the automaton was originally built by a silent filmmaker and special effects innovator named Georges Méliès — which happens to be Papa Georges' full name. With this revelation, Hugo pivots: The boy's attempt to excavate his own personal history becomes an excavation and celebration of the first three decades of cinema history, and the movie's stakes shift accordingly.
Once Papa Georges' true identity is revealed, Scorsese stops the narrative for a reel in order to explain, via flashback, who Méliès was and why he matters. A carnival magician whose career dates back to the turn of the 20th century, when movies were a non-narrative sideshow attraction, Méliès adopted moviemaking as a new way to make magic. Essentially the inventor of the concept of special effects, he pioneered the use of cinematographic tricks like dissolves, multiple exposures, and time-lapse photography. As with so many early films, much of Méliès' output was destroyed, sold so the film stock could be melted down and recycled.
"Time hasn't been kind to old movies," one character admits in Hugo, and he could be speaking for Scorsese, who through his nonprofit Film Foundation has become the celebrity face of film preservation. Once this cause becomes Hugo's primary subject, it becomes increasingly clear that ticking clocks, not the station constable, are this movie's real villain. In the story of Méliès life as recounted by Scorsese — and by extension, the story of the movies — time is the enemy that alters the tastes of audiences, decays film prints, and turns today's fetish objects into tomorrow's relics.
Perfunctorily mounted as a children's adventure, Hugo is weirdly staid in its pacing, and the screenplay, by Scorsese's Aviator collaborator John Logan, is full of groaners. The movie is far more successful as a barely veiled issue flick. Scorsese's most straightforward argument is that history repeats itself: that what happened to Méliès a century ago could easily happen again today, as the film industry's ever-narrowing focus on the bottom line overwhelms historical and preservationist concerns.
But of course, Scorsese is not an innocent bystander. He's abetting, proliferating, and profiting from Hollywood's inescapable money-first cynicism simply by making a movie in 3-D. That this ticket-price-inflating crutch has become all but obligatory for studio films to justify their inflated budgets is its own kind of history-repeating tragedy: How rarely has this "value add" — cribbed from Hollywood's most desperate 20th-century moment — felt like anything other than a cheat?
Scorsese's most purposeful use of 3-D comes in that long flashback sequence meant to serve as a primer on early cinema, through Papa Georges' memories of his career. Using stereoscopic technology to re-create scenes from Méliès' proto-sci-fi films like A Trip to the Moon, Scorsese successfully replicates (and enhances) the shock value and wonderment of Méliès' special effects — all of them originally produced through a combination of camera edits, physical props, and literal smoke and mirrors — for jaded contemporary eyes. Although this sequence is visually stunning, it's even more interesting conceptually: one of Hollywood's greatest directors using Hollywood's trendiest gimmick to awaken audiences to the glory of the past. As much as Hugo is a sop to the industry's interests, it's also a PSA for Scorsese's personal cause.