Although the film is based on the novel by Brian Selznick (titled The Invention of Hugo Cabret), this movie is perhaps director Martin Scorsese's most personal film as it is a love letter to the early days of cinema.
In fact, one might be able to draw parallels between the lives of Scorsese and Hugo (Asa Butterfield). According to his interviews with Richard Schickel, as well as other sources, Scorsese grew up sitting at his window in his apartment only dreaming of the outside world because of his severe asthma. He had a fascination for the machinery and inner-workings of old-fashioned cameras. He grew up watching everything from Italian neorealism to musicals. Once he immersed himself in the film industry, he helped to preserve the past and even ressurect some of its most beloved auteurs. In his case it was Michael Powell, who co-directed with Emeric Pressburger, one of Scorsese's most favorite films, The Red Shoes (Powell was also married to Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese's editor, until his death).
Now, I unfortunately did not see the film in 3-D, so I can't speak for that component (although there were some shots that I can only imagine how interesting they must've looked), but even without the extra dimension, the film's mood and tone were the prevailing sentiments that I walked away with. Set in the 1930s, Hugo's father (Jude Law), worked at a museum and one day he brought home an automaton. Before Hugo and his father could figure out what the machine was created for, a tragic event leads Hugo to live with his uncle (Ray Winstone) whose job is to keep the clocks running on-time in a Parisian train station. The uncle abandons Hugo, who is left to observe and often steal the belongings from the station's venders so he can survive on his own and avoid being sent to an orphanage.
One of the vendors is a man named Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley), who ends up being important to the overall scheme of the adventure Hugo is about to go on. Some of the history that the film presents about Melies is based in truth. He was one of the earliest filmmakers to use special effects and followed the inventive Lumiere Brothers in cranking out countless films (his most famous being A Trip to the Moon). There is a montage where a film historian (Michael Stuhlbarg) takes Hugo and his companion, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), deeper into the film studies section at the library. This scene is quite possibly one of the most joyous moments of the year alongside the finale of the film. Yet as happy as it is, Hugo is still not without its haunting melodrama.
The arc of Melies, wherein Kingsley absolutely steals the entire film away from any actor in just about every scene he is in, is one of sorrow and regret. It deals with the thoughts behind what happens when we become useless? What happens when we no longer have an effect on what is around us? John Logan's screenplay places Hugo's own journey of discovery alongside Melies' journey of re-discovery. We witness a loss of innocence as fantasy is partly lost to reality and yet without ruining the ending, this film still ends on a positive note that pretty much explains why entertainment is an important and artful part of our current societal structure.
My only problem with the film actually lies with Butterfield and Moretz. They have some fantastic scenes, but perhaps because of their youthfulness, certain scenes with them just feel too fantastical, theatrical, and for lack of a better world- over-acted. The film also has a large cast of supporting characters, but it gets to the point where certain additional scenes that flesh them out really aren't that necessary (maybe it is because after a certain point, I keep wishing for more Kingsley and silent film montages). The cast also includes Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Frances De La Tour, and Richard Griffiths. Despite such a talented ensemble, I feel that especially towards the end when Hugo is often entering and exiting the station at a more frequent rate, scenes with the supporting cast will be included and almost intrude on the progression of the main narrative (although the scene where Hugo asks for Gustav's forgiveness was a nice, if distracting, touch).
Despite those minor bits, Scorsese has once again delivered a good film. As far as his narrative features go, I've seen from Mean Streets to this (not counting any shorts or documentaries he might've made) and the only film of his that I flat-out dislike is New York, New York. He is without a doubt, one of the great American directors with an impressive and ambitious filmography that Hugo can now join the ranks of.