Asa Butterfield, Chloe Moretz, Hugo

Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures

Review in a Hurry: Martin Scorsese does a family film? Not exactly. While there's nothing inappropriate on display, how many of the kids out there do we really think will be excited by a cinematic history lesson about French film pioneer Georges Melies? Answer: only the cool ones. The real audience here is cinephiles still in touch with their inner sense of wonder.

The Bigger Picture: Georges who? You may know his work by its having been mimicked in the Smashing Pumpkins video "Tonight, Tonight." A magician born in 1861 who saw cinema as a marvelous new trick, he was one of the original makers of genre films and creators of special effects. Which makes it not feel at all blasphemous to post-convert his old stuff into 3-D; this is one film legend who likely would have embraced the idea.

If you've seen the trailers, you're probably wondering what Melies has to do with a little boy and his clockwork robot. The boy, an orphaned street urchin named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), may ostensibly be the star of the show, but he's really a conduit to tell the tale of the director (Ben Kingsley), who spent his twilight years selling toys in a train station. It's a magic-realist style that the old master of realistic magic might appreciate. Seeing in 3-D is a must, as part of the point here is to use every modern trick in the cinematic playbook, as Melies did in his day with what he had.

It feels like Clint Eastwood successfully kept Leonardo DiCaprio distracted long enough for Martin Scorsese to be able to make a non-insufferable movie this year. We know from all cinematic evidence that Scorsese loves him some ultra-violence and Rolling Stones tunes, but his passion for, and knowledge of, cinema history has come out mainly in documentaries. Hugo is that rare gem in which references to other movies make one smile knowingly rather than groaning audibly; this is in large part because the in-jokes are all based on silent films with high pedigrees.

Lest this sound stodgy, it isn't. Robert Richardson's cinematography is dazzling, with a wide array of camera spins, swoops, tracking shots, long takes and more. We may have a fantasy version of Paris, but it's not the Jean-Pierre Jeunet rip-off the early clips suggested. The thesis of the movie is that the cinema makes dreams become real, and part of that involves making the story at hand feel like an incredible dream. Can we take back the Oscar for The Departed and give it to Hugo instead?

Oh, and Christopher Lee's in it. That's always a plus.

The 180—a Second Opinion: Chloe Grace Moretz is always good and her English accent is impeccable (this may be France, but everyone enunciates like the queen). However, a lot of the early scenes between her and Butterfield drag on a bit. And most modern kids won't have a clue what they're talking about.

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