The conjunction of ‘family friendly’ and ‘3 D’ is not auspicious, even if the film in question is directed by Martin Scorsese. But from the first shot, a kind of reversal of the famous flying scene in Peter Pan, with the viewpoint swooping over the crowded and crooked roofs of snowy, early 1930s Paris, ducking under the eaves of the arched canopy of a railway terminus, and closing in on the eye of a boy peering through a chink in a clock face at the bustling life below, Hugo establishes itself as a triumphant and lovingly crafted work imbued with Scorsese’s passion for film and film history.
The boy, Hugo (Asa Butterfield), is an orphan. After his clockmaker father (Jude Law) died in a fire, Hugo fell into the care of his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone); after his uncle disappeared he continued the work of maintaining the many clocks in the terminus. He haunts a wainscot world of clock towers and hidden passages, snatching food from stalls and shops, avoiding the attention of the station’s inspector, played by Sasha Baron Cohen as if Peter Cook was impersonating the child snatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and spying on the little dramas and romances of the station’s other inhabitants from which he, like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, is excluded.
Hugo’s only link with his dead father is a complex automaton found in disrepair in a museum storeroom. He has been stealing the cogs and ratchets he needs to bring the automaton back to life from the station’s toy shop; when the irascible owner, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), catches him red handed and confiscates his precious notebook containing vital sketches and plans, the clockwork of the plot is set in motion. Hugo enlists the help of Papa George’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Cloe Grace Moretz) to retrieve the notebook; Isabelle is more than willing because she wants a real life version of the adventures in the books she loves. Hugo discovers a link between Isabelle’s godfather and the automaton, in the form of a heart-shaped key that brings the machine to life; when it draws a picture of an iconic moment in an old film Hugo’s father described to him, the pair become detectives into the life of Papa Georges. And it’s here, as they delve into cinema history, that the film connects with its own heart-shaped key. Moments from the great silent films spin around them; a film historian recalls a childhood visit to the studio of a pioneering film maker, whose methods and techniques are recreated in loving detail (with a entirely apt cameo by Scorsese). The film maker is Papa Georges, of course, who has renounced his past after he was forced to sell his celluloid archive; the two children conspire to bring about his return to the public eye.
Adapted from Brian Selznick’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, it’s the kind of old fashioned tale in which clues are found in libraries, the mission is not to save the world but to bring the past back to life, everyone (even the inspector) is at heart a romantic, and the only villain is time. The film’s CGI and 3 D effects serve the story, and contribute to depth and density with which the fantastical kingdom of the railway terminus is realised, rather than punctuate the narrative with crude thrusts of shock and awe. There’s plenty of steam, there are dizzy plunges and pursuits through the cogs and escarpments of huge clocks, and there’s also the automaton. Does Hugo’s fantastical embroidery of a real life story (because the story of the film pioneer who disappeared, and (like many of his ‘lost’ films) was found again, is true) contain enough steampunk flourishes to win it a Hugo?