Growing up in New York’s Queens district in the late 1940s, Martin Scorsese was a sickly child, often bedridden by asthma. He couldn’t play in the streets, so his parents began to bring him to the local cinemas, where he immersed himself in the fantastical worlds created by Howard Hawks and Michael Powell; brightly-lit places where nobody wheezed.

Now, decades later, Scorsese makes his first children’s film with Hugo, an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s best-selling illustrated book The Invention Of Hugo Cabret; the story of a lonely child saved from abandonment by the magic of movies. It is a film that the young Scorsese would have loved, one that captures the enduring draw of cinema, old and new, in a fantasy about dreams, adventures, family and inventions.

Using the latest 3D technology for the first time, Scorsese’s Hugo opens with a panoramic sweep of a glittering Paris that tracks all the way into the tiny crevices in the walls of a train station where Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives among the steaming pipes. An orphan since the death of his clockmaker father (Jude Law in cameo), Hugo lives in the spaces between the walls of the station, surviving alone on whatever he can scavenge as he keeps all the station clocks wound and in good order while dodging the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), a martinet in knee-high boots and a kepi

Hugo’s only remaining connection to his father is a mysterious metal automaton, a moving sculpture of a man with a pen, that he is trying to repair using the scattered cogs and wheels he finds among the machinery. That obsessive quest for gears leads Hugo to a confrontation with the bitter old man (Ben Kingsley) who runs a toy shop in a quiet corner of the station, who confiscates the boy’s treasured notebook and makes him work in order to return it. The old man also has a granddaughter of about Hugo’s age named Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) whose free-spirited quest for adventure has been encouraged by the books she borrows from the crammed bookshop run by M. Labisse (Christopher Lee at his most crepuscular). When Isabelle’s derring-do leads Hugo to discover an important component for his automaton, the two adventurers join forces to uncover a long-forgotten secret that throws new light on who her grandfather really is, or once was, following a course that takes them back to George Méliés and the birth of cinema itself.

Scorsese’s 3D experiment is visually flawless but the new technology brings with it a requirement to expand the frame with a series of overly frantic chases as Baron Cohen and his massive dog pursue Hugo through the train station, tripping over an entire company of underutilised British actors including Richard Griffiths, Frances De La Tour and Emily Mortimer. As adapted by John Logan (who scripted Scorsese’s The Aviator) Hugo’s story elements fit together like the well-oiled machinery that so commands the boy’s imagination. The performances, however, are as broad and inconsistent as those of the silent cinema that Scorsese adores, with the young duo appearing, at times, to be over-directed to the point where their natural liveliness is quelled to allow the camera sweep around them.

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