Who's the audience for Hugo? With roots in the fantasy/adventure genres and a comfortable color palette for the Harry Potter and Twilight crowds, "preteen" seems a safe bet. But it undergoes a metamorphosis around the midpoint that fixed my posture and put the kids to bed. Not that I'm complaining.
The two halves of Hugo are at odds. In the first hour, we meet Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield – the spitting image of a prepubescent Malcolm MacDowell), an orphan and wee tinkerer living behind the walls of a Parisian train station circa 1930. He lives only to wind the clocks and scavenge parts for his prized automaton – a wrecked robot with sentimental ties to his late father (Jude Law). A chance encounter with a young girl (Chloë Moretz) may be the key to unlocking the secret of his antiquated android.
In the second, Scorsese taps his inner film buff. Enter French silent filmmaker Georges Méliès, whose spectacular oddball A Trip to the Moon features prominently. Hugo posthumously honors the artist's underappreciated oeuvre, complete with stunning recreations of his avant-garde genre flicks. The also-underrated Michael Stuhlbarg plays film historian Rene Tabard, a champion of Méliès' lost legacy.
Somehow, the story of a boy and his robot and the redemption of a brilliant, misunderstood artist mesh, if reluctantly. I can't feign complete enthusiasm for Hugo's by-the-numbers fantasy beginning, but loved the playful manipulation of art history it preceded. Conversely, I imagine the general audience will go for the "Once Upon A Time," but neither know nor care who Méliès is. Some may walk away none the wiser to the elements of nonfiction.
Unifying Hugo's disparate halves are gorgeous storybook visuals bolstered by inspired use of 3D tech. Action sequences up the gee-whiz factor, but Scorsese's most compelling use of the gimmick is also among his most subtle; touches like adding the effect to Méliès' films has the revelatory effect of making history come alive. And it doesn't carry the stink of desperation that accompanies Disney and Star Wars' conversions. As a magician who embraced every trick in the book, Méliès would have loved 3D.
Another constant is the caliber of the performances. The principals are solid, and Hugo is packed with veteran character actors who breathe vibrant life into their world. Folks like Ray Winstone as Hugo's Drunken Uncle, Ben Kingsley as a shopkeeper with a secret, Christopher Lee as a kindhearted librarian, and Sacha Baron Cohen as the bumbling station inspector help even the one-dimensional roles shine.
Pushing himself while pushing 70, you have to admire Scorsese's dogged tenacity. The director won his long-belated Best Director Oscar in 2007 for The Departed, which seems to have freed him from falling into an Eastwood-esque downward spiral; first with the psychological thriller Shutter Island, and now with the unabashed fantasy, Hugo. That jarring juxtaposition is just one factor in obfuscating who its audience is supposed to be.
Diplomatically, the new Martin Scorsese picture aims to please everyone, but divides more than it unites. Parents may be left twiddling their thumbs during the first drama-lite hour, and kids may nod off during the second half history lesson. However, for a particular breed of cinephile, Hugo is magic – a love letter to film from a master of the medium. Scorsese's adoration is tangible – not for Georges Méliès specifically – but for artists both great and small. It's sublime. It's beautiful. But bring a pillow.