AS WITH SHUTTER ISLAND, director Martin Scorsese is still writing mash notes to cinema's past, but where last year's silly genre homage failed, Hugo is heartfelt and touching. It's a kids' movie that wistfully, almost cloyingly, ruminates about what it means to have a creative purpose, while treasuring historical artifacts—like good ol' silver nitrate film, stacks of leather books, and rusted automatons. If this sounds like the ramblings of your grampappy, you wouldn't be too off base. But that old coot's really loveable and he's got a point.
In a huge train station in Paris in the 1930s, a young orphan named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) roams the back corridors and towers, spying on the shopkeepers and avoiding the station guard (Sascha Baron Cohen). Hugo's dead father, a clockmaker and tinker, left the boy in the care of his soused uncle, custodian of the station's clock towers. So the urchin winds gears and tinkers with a broken automaton, surrounded by vistas of the whirling cogs and elaborate machinery (Scorsese really sweeps around those pendulums with 3D gusto). Hugo befriends a precocious girl sleuth (Chloë Grace Moretz) and together they discover that her world-weary godfather is the famous silent filmmaker Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). The kids are determined to rekindle his long-lost love of film, and eventually Méliès tells them tales of his special-effects magic.
Hugo seems like a deeply personal picture for Scorsese, which celebrates the feats of imagination and production from the heyday of film's birth. Amazingly, it never topples into schmaltzy territory. It tiptoes the fine line between self-aware history lesson and enchanting fairy tale, skillfully incorporating footage and restagings of Méliès' films. It's lovely spectacle, all the stronger when Scorsese finally gets to the cinematic meat of what really interests him—visions like a rocket through the moon's eye, or Hugo dangling from the hands of a clock à la Harold Lloyd.