Martin Scorsese has made so many provocative movies over the decades that probably the only way left for him to shock an audience was to make a children's film. Yes, "Hugo" is rated PG. It's also in 3-D, meaning that this Christmas release delivers the dazzling special effects now expected in a big-budget movie.
This immensely gifted director really does deliver in terms of a family-friendly movie that qualifies as a genuine gift for the holiday season.
Ironically, it may be a gift more appreciated by seasoned movie buffs than by small children. "Hugo" is an homage to the pioneering French filmmaker Georges Melies, whose "A Trip to the Moon" boasted state-of-the-art special effects for a 1902 release.
Himself the ultimate movie buff, Scorsese embraces this opportunity to immerse us in the birth of cinema.
It's quite likely that very young movie-goers also will be swept up in this immersion in the magic of early moviemaking. But it's also likely that some of them may fidget during the deliberate narrative pace that prevails in "Hugo."
Although Scorsese's trademark roaming camera impressively takes us through the streets of Paris in the 1930s, all of that movement is in the service of a story that otherwise takes its time in showing how the young title character's life intersects with that of the elderly Melies. "Hugo" is a character study that takes its time studying these characters.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a reclusive orphan who is basically raising himself within near-hidden rooms at a large train station in Paris. He's quietly behind the scenes maintaining the station's clocks. Indeed, the station bureaucrats falsely assume that an adult employee is responsible for such clockwork accuracy.
This wide-eyed orphan, whose late father was a clockmaker, often looks out through a clock face at the bustling people down below in the station. When he actually ventures down there, he's a little thief snatching a croissant here and some other necessity there.
Hugo's cat-and-mouse games with a Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) are full of so much physical slapstick that it's an amusing immersion in a broad comic style found in French silent and early sound films.
When Hugo first crosses paths with the mean old owner of a toy store located on the station concourse, Pappa Georges (Ben Kingsley), he has no way of suspecting that this crusty guy has a near-magical past.
The eventual revelation of Pappa Georges' true identity is beautifully handled in the John Logan screenplay derived from Brian Selznick's novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret." It's also expertly handled by Ben Kingsley's tightly wound, unsentimental performance as Pappa Georges/Georges Melies. Here's hoping Kingsley is nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor.
In fact, "Hugo" does correspond to the facts of Melies' life. After making hundreds of special effects-enhanced movies at the dawn of the 20th century, this magician-turned-filmmaker gave up filmmaking and eventually ran this sort of market stall in his later years.
As bold as he is curious, Hugo becomes a frequent presence in Pappa Georges' shop and nearby apartment. Upon learning about this shop owner's stubbornly suppressed earlier life as a film director, Hugo loves watching "A Trip to the Moon" projected on the apartment's wall.
"Hugo" likewise has a deliriously happy time indulging in flashbacks that take it from the early 1930s back to the earliest years of filmmaking activity in France. We watch as the Lumiere Brothers' 52-second-long documentary movie about a train arriving at a station frightens an audience in the mid-1890s, because they fear that the train will come off the screen and proceed into the auditorium. And we watch as Melies oversees the props, costumes, set design and direction for "A Trip to the Moon" and the other fictional films he made at a studio constructed next to his house.
These are the scenes that movie buffs will adore, but such scenes are likely to cast a spell over any movie-goers with the patience to settle into "Hugo."
The whole movie is such a visual treat that its appeal verges on the hypnotic. Combining live action staged on gorgeously detailed sets with computer-generated special effects, Scorsese invites us to enter the storybook environment where early movies and, for that matter, his own movie are created. Grade: A