Scorsese's Hugo is for discerning children only

Hugo (PG)

Directed by Martin Scorsese.


A kids' movie by Martin Scorsese? Yes and no. Hugo is the first movie directed by Martin Scorsese that kids can go see, but it's not simply a kids' movie in the usual sense of that term. Or, put another way, it's a kids' movie for discerning kids. As such, it's one of the greatest PG movies ever made and a visual delight from start to finish. And, yes, it's in 3-D.

The 3-Dness of the film is key to its success. Because the story ultimately involves the history of cinema in the figure of real-life film pioneer George Méliès (Ben Kingsley), the use of 3-D is thematic as well as technical: 3-D perfectly suits the films Mélies made, as we seem them here, and the new technique makes an entertaining commentary on that old film buff canard about how viewers of the first film by the Lumière brothers, Train Arriving at the Station, screamed at the illusion that the train was coming into the theater. 3-D restores a bit of that suspension of disbelief to our jaded optic nerves. One of my favorite moments is the close-up of the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) leaning in to question Hugo (Asa Butterfield). Cohen's face seems to penetrate our space in a discomfiting way.

The performances have a lot more gravitas and subtlety than is often the case in kids' fare. Kingsley wears a tragic, bitter air as the toy shop owner, Papa Georges, that Méliès becomes; as Hugo, Butterfield is thoroughly watchable; a lonely orphan living in the clockworks of a train station, he communicates much without words, in the best traditions of silent screen acting. The same goes for Cohen, who finds the right blend of comedy, dignity and ferocity. As Isabelle, the new companion who helps Hugo, Chloë Grace Moretz is sweet-faced and trusting. There's fine support from Helen McCrory, as Méliès's wife who blooms into beauty when her husband's film legacy is resurrected, and from Jude Law, as Hugo's clock-making and automaton-repairing father.

The automaton is Hugo's father's legacy to the boy, and Hugo's desire to repair it sets off much of what happens, but it's also a wonderful figure for the magic of made things— whether clocks, cameras, trains, or films, all of which are poeticized by the director's love for the inventions that make modern life possible. The need to fix what is broken has physical and emotional connotations and the film manages to play upon both with classic film deftness, rather than descending to sentimental schmaltz.

Visually stunning, endlessly fun to watch, Hugo is a masterpiece of benign adventure, about the growth that comes from trusting one's best instincts. The film is a delightful holiday gift from Scorsese to lovers of movies. If you care about cinema, go see it on the big screen in 3-D, and be prepared to enter a child's world of wonder.

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