An entrancing look at 'Hugo'

Martin Scorsese is not the first name that pops to mind when you say “family entertainment.” But he is a great director, and his new “Hugo” proves that his reach extends beyond hard-edged urban films (“Taxi Driver,” “Goodfellas”) and thrillers (“Cape Fear,” “The Departed”). It also proves that 3-D can be used inventively and with purpose.

Adapted from the bestselling “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” it opens with an insane “continuous single take” tracking shot — some of which was obviously done with CGI — that in five minutes or so shows us Hugo's entire physical milieu, in which 90% of the film takes place. That environment is the Montparnasse railway station, Paris, 1931. Recently orphaned, young Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is taken in by his brutish uncle (Ray Winstone), who lives and works in the station and who promptly disappears. In order to evade the authorities — primarily the officious station master (Sacha Baron Cohen) — Hugo clandestinely takes over his uncle's job … winding the giant clocks that overlook both the terminal and the Paris skyline.

When he's not sneaking around the station, filching bits of food, he works at fixing a complex metal “man” — an automaton his father (Jude Law) had been working on when he died. Hugo is convinced that, if he can get it running, he will discover a message left by Dad. At the same time, he develops an uneasy relationship with the crabby old man (Ben Kingsley) who runs the depot's toy shop and an easier one with Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), another orphan, who is being raised by the old man and his wife.

Scorsese, his design team and ace cinematographer Robert Richardson give Paris a fantastical look, reminiscent of “City of Lost Children,” “Ratatouille” and “Triplets of Belleville.” On the surface, this fairy-tale world would seem to be galaxies away from Scorsese's New York-centric life. But, as its different story threads coalesce, the movie's theme is revealed to be cinema itself — its invention, its magic and, specifically, the work of Georges Melies. (This is presumably the first kids' movie about film history.) And cinema is what's most central to Scorsese's life. In fact, toward the end, “Hugo” turns into an argument for the importance of film preservation (a cause for which the director has long rallied). These scenes even grow a little didactic and repetitive (at least from the perspective of a film history major).

This is one of its very few flaws (all minor). To get the others out of the way: “Hugo” is arguably overlong, clocking in at two hours and 10 minutes; and the slapstick comedy scenes — mostly involving Baron Cohen's character — sometimes fall flat.

The performances are all top-notch; in addition to those already named, we get Emily Mortimer, Richard Griffiths and even Christopher Lee in supporting roles.

In most of the current wave of 3-D films, the technique is simply an unnecessary gimmick, often created on computer in post-production, and always as an excuse to charge higher ticket prices. “Hugo” was shot in and for 3-D; and, like James Cameron in “Avatar,” Scorsese uses it to good effect. During chases, he puts us down at Hugo's level, and the immediateness of 3-D emphasizes how dangerous the otherwise genial station appears to a small boy trying to avoid discovery.

The decision to use 3-D is also fitting in a film dealing with Melies, who more or less invented in-camera special effects during film's first decade. At one point, we even see clips from Melies films (as well as some World War I newsreel footage) artificially rendered into 3-D.

The story is complexly self-referential: There are multiple worlds of flashbacks, history lessons, dreams, illusions and memories, within which themes, events and dialogue all link up with one another. Even more importantly, they quite blatantly link up with the film’s audience as well — with Scorsese entrancing us as surely as the characters within are entranced by Melies.

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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