Director Martin Scorsese's well-documented affection for all things cinema has never been more evident than in the enchanting and imaginative "Hugo." Scorsese paints a rich tapestry in adapting the Brian Selznick novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," presenting a vibrant 1930s Paris with exceptional cinematography, costuming and set design (the quality 3D is a bonus).
The methodical pacing may lull some viewers, particularly the restless youngsters toward whom the film is partially geared. But redemption comes in an inspired cast (Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Christopher Lee), a deeply textured storyline and the passionate Scorsese pulling the strings. Family films aren't often this expertly crafted.
Young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield of "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas") lives alone in the hollowed walls of the city train station, orphaned following the death of his father (Jude Law). He watches the passersby with interest and sneaks bites of food away from the gaze of the station inspector (Cohen). Hugo is desperate to finish repairing the automaton -- an old robotic figure -- that he and his dad had been working on, occasionally forced to steal little mechanical parts from a toy shop at the station.
The shop's enigmatic owner (Kingsley as Georges Melies) catches Hugo in the act and confiscates Hugo's journal: a booklet with his father's sketches of the automaton's inner workings. Eager for an adventure, Georges' goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz of "Kick-Ass") agrees to help Hugo get his journal back, setting off a series of mysterious events that click and whirl with the rhythm of a finely tuned clock.
Kingsley makes his case for another Oscar nod with his evocative and poignant portrayal of real-life pioneering filmmaker Melies. Cohen of "Borat" and "Bruno" fame is perfectly cast and serves up the picture's sporadic humor with aplomb. Michael Stuhlbarg of "A Serious Man" is also especially impressive as film enthusiast Rene Tabard, and Lee sheds his "Lord of the Rings" menace as the station's stoic librarian.
"Hugo" has far more in common with Scoresese's underappreciated "Kundun" than the gritty gangster pictures he's widely recognized for. There is an appreciation for the art of film at the heart of the storyline that seems to channel Scorsese's own reverence for the medium. Character dynamics are wonderfully drawn between Hugo and Isabelle, Georges and his wife Jeanne (Helen McCrory), the station inspector and the florist he admires (Emily Mortimer), and others. The simple yet sophisticated automaton becomes a microcosm of the station and its players, waiting for the right pieces -- and right person -- to finally be fixed.
Family films are all the rage in 2011, with Cameron Crowe ("We Bought a Zoo"), Steven Spielberg ("War Horse") and even the Muppets dipping their toes in the cinematic pool. And "Hugo" may be the brightest of the bunch.