After more than 40 years at the forefront of American film, it had to happen sooner or later: Martin Scorsese has gone and given himself over to whimsy. Given the pitch-black sophistication of the films that made his name and the moral grime of even his lesser efforts, the helm of a kids' movie seems a strange place to find Marty—but the truth is it's not a poor fit. There's always been a wide-eyed enthusiasm to the man himself, more comfortable beaming about formative moments at the movies than addressing his own worldly work. Why shouldn't he find a way to pass that along to the most receptive possible audience?
At any rate, he could hardly have chosen better source material for his first shot at the family set, Hugo. Even in bare synopsis, Brian Selznick's Caldecott Medal-winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret sounds like a dream of a big-budget holiday feature, following orphaned clockmaker's son Hugo (played in the film by Asa Butterfield) through the inner workings of a 1930s Parisian train depot, ensuring the clocks run smoothly lest his situation be discovered.
Host to much of Hugo's adventuring, the station comes to full life under Scorsese's watch. Inside and outside, this is the Paris of dreams; brass shines, lights twinkle and trains run on time, shuttling masses back and forth from the real world. A pleasantly inconsequential sampling of the depot's regulars become familiar, along with a dour shopkeeper (Ben Kingsley) whose toy stand and goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) become twin preoccupations for Hugo.
The two young leads are lovely together, and from the beginning Scorsese contributes an unforced warmth. But Hugo drags until the second act, when the mystery of a broken (and only minimally creepy) automaton ends up unraveling a much broader tale, and brings the cinema itself on as a main character. Hugo and Isabelle's story ends up intertwined with that of magician and special effects pioneer Georges Melies, who produced hundreds of films at his revolutionary studio only to fall into obscurity once Europe went to war.
You can feel Scorsese light up from behind the camera once Melies enters the picture, and from there on Hugo's sugary sheen finally takes on some depth. If there's any one reason to recommend the film, it's how Martin Scorsese embraces his role as a teacher, even a cinema evangelist. As little as he can help himself but to slather the film in visual quotes and homage, he spends just as much time sharing as sneaking, propping up innovators like Melies, the Lumiere Brothers, and Harold Lloyd (whose featured stunt from Safety Last informs Hugo's most suspenseful scene) for introduction to a still-indebted audience more than a century out. Whether kids are willing or able to give themselves over to Isabelle's rapturous first time at the movies, they'll damn well learn the context.
Where this all goes wrong, at least for those who like paying extra for movie tickets, is Scorsese's captivation with the magician Melies having emboldened him to abandon his beloved celluloid in favor of digital 3D. The gap between film and digital, we've seen, is continually narrowing (enough that most companies have ceased producing film, let alone the cameras to run it through) and it wouldn't matter much to the effects-heavy Hugo either way—but two years after Avatar, the film functions 3D-wise as a state-of-the-gimmick address, and it may not surprise you that the state of the gimmick is weak.
Some of the 3D shtick Scorsese offers is fairly novel, including a bravura introductory shot of the train station and a snippet from the production of Melies' The Eclipse that may be the most visually striking 20 seconds of any film this year. The remaining two-plus hours, though, suggests mostly that an all-time great director with cutting-edge technology and a perfectly good excuse to indulge in it is still as apt to distance the audience as to draw them in.
Or at least that's how I felt throughout Hugo, occasionally going to the trouble to "downconvert" by closing or covering one eye but mostly taking it in and trying to understand what it is that's supposed to be special about the result. James Cameron himself has heaped praise on Hugo as a 3D film, in case you're in need of a second opinion, and Scorsese has already threatened to shoot all his films in 3D from now on. But if you're looking for a handsome family film, Hugo in 2D is a safe bet; if you're looking for some kind of extravagant 3D experience, your mileage may vary, and you might miss a perfectly nice story.