Despite the fact that Martin Scorsese's first film for all ages, Hugo, was based on the Caldecott-winning children's novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, it wouldn't be fair to call it a family movie. A fanciful invention loosely tied to the real life of a fanciful inventor, it is instead a charming meditation on film, art, and the value of work that will likely prove too quiet for most youngsters. But for a certain kind of reflective child and likeminded adults, Hugo is a 3D gift-wrapped dream.
The narrative of titular character Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan boy living in the immense clockworks of a busy 1930s Paris train station, is more an aside than anything. He has brief run-ins with the officious station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, whose phenomenal facial dexterity translates to innocent humor as well if not better than the raunchy stuff he's famous for). He befriends the book-loving, similarly orphaned Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) and clashes with her guardian, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), the train station toy peddler. In between all of that, he and Isabelle try to solve the mystery of the automaton (a mechanical man) Hugo's father discovered in a museum before he died.
But the real purpose of the film, rated PG for some slightly bawdy dialogue and smoking, is for Scorsese to celebrate the medium that has provided his life's work and to ponder from whence his talent springs. It turns out grouchy Papa Georges is none other than the great turn-of-the century filmmaker George Méliès. After World War I leaves him impoverished and professionally unpopular, Méliès hangs up his camera and tries to forget about the magic of movies. Not surprisingly, frustrating his passion leaves Méliès bitter, unfulfilled, and depressed.
Hugo's own passion is fixing mechanical things. Looking out onto a city full of bustling people, he considers that the world is like one big machine. And if it is, he correctly deduces, then it cannot be an accident that he exists. He, like all the other pieces in the machine around him, must have a purpose. He wonders if helping Monsieur Méliès find his purpose will fix the brokenness so clearly evident in the man's life.
Méliès' sense of insignificance in his later years serves as a warning of what results from failing to use our God-given talents in meaningful pursuits. Through Méliès story, we get a sense of what shaped Scorsese as an artist-an asthmatic boy who, unable to play sports or run wild in the outdoors, found his dreams in the flickering dark of the movie theater and once aspired to become a priest. Hugo plays like a prayer of thanksgiving from the 70-year-old celebrated director that he has been allowed a lifetime of work in a field that he adores.
Ironically, to create his homage to the past Scorsese makes stunning use of the technology of the future. Though many fans of James Cameron's Avatar may argue, for my money, Scorsese's Parisian settings offer the best use of 3D technology so far, and Hugo is one of the few films worth spending extra money for an added dimension. Quiet snow falling over statues in a church yard, mists rising through gas-lit alleys, the sun setting over a hazy Seine-these scenes are so fully realized and present in haunting watercolor splendor, you almost feel as if you could reach out and touch them.
Hugo falls short in imagining that using one's talents toward useful work alone satisfies our need for significance. But its message that we are all here for a purpose, endowed by our creator with good gifts, is a rare subject for cinema. We might not all be blessed with Scorsese's towering talents, but we were all created to draw joy and dignity from employing whatever measure we were given.