Martin Scorsese made his rep as the fierce bard of American gangster machismo. From Mean Streets to The Departed, he has sung the body choleric. So why would he make a film of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick's rhapsodically nostalgic children's book? Because Hugo is fascinated by artistic contraptions that cast spells over the audience. And Scorsese, a lifelong lover and promoter of classic films, has never lost his infant wonder at the spectacle of giant images in a darkened movie palace. So Hugo is not only an act of devotion from a modern movie artist to the wizards who inspired him; it is also Scorsese's imaginary autobiography.
An orphan since the death of his beloved father (Jude Law), Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives in Paris' Montparnasse train station, where he keeps the clocks running perfectly--a job left him by his absent, alcoholic uncle. Fearful of being caught by the pompous station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and with no way of cashing his uncle's checks, Hugo lives furtively in the clock tower, surviving by stealing food from local shops. Obsessed with assembling a mysterious automaton his father had been working on, Hugo also filches machine parts from the toy store of stern, gloomy Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley). The boy's friendship with Georges' goddaughter Isabelle (Chlo Grace Moretz) will help him unwrap sensational secrets, including the invention of movie magic.
Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan share Selznick's belief that movies are both the stuff dreams are made of and the product of supreme technological expertise. It's a machine that makes art. That's evident in the two amazing tracking shots that open Hugo: the first traversing the Paris skyline to alight inside the train station, the second scampering after Hugo through the building's clockwork innards. Shot in 3-D (a format that dates back nearly to the dawn of cinema), these images impart a vertiginous ecstasy.
Scorsese, no less than Selznick, wants to open viewers' eyes to the sacred sorcery of the earliest works by the Lumire brothers, Georges Mlis, Harold Lloyd--the whole fabulous parade--and to show how these masterpieces were birthed by tinkerers of genius. But Hugo is more than a love letter to film preservation. It gives full Dickensian heft to its sad, tender story of a lost boy on a mission. Bursting with emotion and exquisitely inhabited by Butterfield and the rest of the cast, this beautiful film is a mechanism that comes to life at the turn of a key in the shape of a heart.