- - Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Martin Scorsese’s first foray into 3-D filmmaking is audacious, reverential and visually astonishing. As a cinematic experience, it is miles ahead of anything that’s been released since “Avatar,” and it improves on that innovative 3-D film in several key ways.

Mr. Scorsese uses 3-D in a whole new fashion, not only placing the camera in motion for action shots, but also using the format to create a rich and fluid visual canvas. With a long shot he can show the undulation of moving crowds as a single organism. With a medium shot he can accentuate the awkwardness of a romantic approach. Up close, Mr. Scorsese uses the added dimension as way to enhance stillness and quiet.

For film buffs, Mr. Scorsese has made a dream of a movie, combining the latest technology and his lifetime of experience in motion pictures to make a film that celebrates the life and contribution of one of the art’s most inventive practitioners — French filmmaker Georges Melies.

It is incredible that such an arty topic would wind up as the basis for a big-budget Hollywood movie. Based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, “Hugo” tells the story of an orphaned boy who has the unofficial job of maintaining the clocks in a huge Paris train terminal. On the side, Hugo collects cogs, gears and springs, often from unwilling merchants, to restore a mechanical automaton that is his dead father’s only legacy. Hugo hopes the solution to the mystery of the automaton’s design will contain a message from his father.

Mr. Scorsese does a magnificent job capturing the visually idiosyncratic nature of Mr. Selznick’s book. One moment stands out in particular — Hugo (Asa Butterfield) has just been caught trying to swipe a mechanical mouse from the curmudgeonly toy merchant who turns out to be Melies (Ben Kingsley). Hugo’s sketchbook, filled with detailed diagrams for repairing the automaton, is seized by Melies, who pages through it. The drawings connect from page to page like a flip book and the animated sequence jumps off the screen in 3-D.

The technical and artistic wizardry required to imagine and create this sequence are manifested throughout the entire film. From a purely visual point of view, “Hugo” blows away anything Mr. Scorsese has done in his career — including the legendary Copacabana sequence in “Goodfellas.”

The small flaws of “Hugo” are rather ordinary, in the area of storytelling and the demands placed on the audience. To present the full cast of characters that inhabits the railway terminal and to give viewers a sense of Melies‘ career and influence, the film skimps on Hugo’s voyage of discovery as he pieces together the broken automaton and its link to Melies. The movie clocks in at 130 minutes, but it feels long only because it unwinds without much suspense.

Children will enjoy the film for the visual effects, and for its wonderful performances. Sacha Baron Cohen is nearly perfect as a vindictive but needy station inspector who makes it his mission to apprehend untended children and send them to the orphanage. Chloe Grace Moretz is infectiously charming as Isabel, the godchild of Melies, who takes an interest in Hugo’s journey. Young Asa does a fine job playing Hugo as a curious and gifted, but lonely, child who longs for a family.

But “Hugo” will appeal most strongly to viewers who appreciate Mr. Scorsese’s deep dive into the history of early cinema, and his painstakingly detailed re-creations of Melies‘ films. It will be interesting to see whether a movie that is so steeped in the history and art of cinema can generate enough interest among general audiences.

★★★★

TITLE:Hugo

CREDITS: Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by John Logan, based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick

RATING: PG for mild violence

RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS