The ballsiest and most personal film Martin Scorsese has made in eons is a children’s film. In Hugo, set largely in an epic Montparnasse train station in the 1930s, a young orphan (Asa Butterfield) gradually deduces that the crotchety miser who runs the toy shop (Ben Kingsley) is in fact Georges Méliès, the magician-turned-film pioneer most famous for the seminal 1902 fantasy A Trip to the Moon. There is some attempted (and mostly failed) comic intrigue with the bumbling station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), plus a muted romance with Méliès’ bookish god-daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz) that, nicely, never gets out of the larval stage. But in terms of high concept plot, all Hugo has for the tots are lessons on films that hover around 110 years old.
It’s uncertain who the intended audience is here, other than wide-eyed kids who have not yet had the wonder beaten out of them by cynical cartoon adaptations, as well as the very cool parents who have parked them in front of it. Hugo will get swept away long before that next Alvin and the Chipmunks monstrosity rolls in, which is a shame as it’s the kind of fare that taps directly into kids’ primal pleasure centers while expanding their horizons. It is, in essence, about the discovery of cinema, arguing that the first films reduced everyone, adult and child, to the same awe-inspired, jaw-dropped viewer. (Twice do we see people ducking as the approaching locomotive in the Lumière Brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat—an irrational but understandable reaction the first movie audiences had in real life.)
Though this wondrous, if imperfect, valentine stumps for a more practical, bygone breed of film technology, it’s also a $170 million behemoth with richly animated cityscapes, digitally assisted Scorsese long takes and some handsome 3-D. The idea is to fuse the two eras/types, sometimes literally: Seeing a clip from A Trip to the Moon converted into three dimensions may sound crass in theory but, when seen, all but justifies the technology’s existence. While also operating as a pricey advert for the Méliès box set, Hugo’s lofty goal is to demonstrate what’s magical about motion pictures, to young and older, by looking at its very genesis and finding its roots in magic. Its true success will be measured in how many of the next generation become cinema studies majors.