In "Hugo," Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz play Parisian orphans on the trail of a mystery.
Those who know a little about the history of early movies will appreciate Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" on deeper levels, but it's a dazzling story even without that background.
Young Hugo (ocean-eyed Asa Butterfield) is a post-World War I orphan who lives alone in a cavernous Paris train station that's a steampunk dream of gears and spiral staircases, swirls of fog and smoke, monstrous trains and enormous clocks. First his father and then his uncle die, but if he can steal enough food to survive and keep the station's clocks running on time, no one will notice and send him to an orphanage. His nemesis is the sour-faced station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, a long way from "Borat"), but his real future lies with a mysterious man (Ben Kingsley) who runs a toy shop.
Hugo's been stealing parts from the toy shop to finish an automaton, an eerie silver automated man his father found in a museum attic. If he can finish it, he believes, he not only won't be so lonely, but he may receive a final message from his lost father. But when the toy-shop owner's goddaughter (Chloe Grace Moretz) befriends him, the two kids discover a mystery involving her godfather and his place in the history of early movies.
And from here on, the film unravels an enthralling class in early cinematic history. Those first filmmakers were just steps away from sideshows and magic acts, hand-cutting film so that skeletons appear to disappear, and terrifying audiences into believing that a filmed train is going to run them over. Scorsese deftly brings history books to life, so that his modern viewers, sitting in a 2011 venue with stadium seating, cupholders and 3-D glasses, can imagine a bit of the spell that movies must have cast over those earliest fans.
Is "Hugo" for children? Older ones may not appreciate all the Movie History 101 lessons, but they'll appreciate the story, and might learn a little as well. And even adults who think they don't care about the early days of film may find themselves spellbound by this love letter to celluloid.
"Hugo" director Martin Scorsese talks about the story of Hugo Cabret, and how he's always dreamed of doing a 3-D movie.