"Time has not been kind to old movies." This line could have been delivered by Martin Scorsese, as he continues his mission to rescue and restore lost classics from cinema's past, but instead it's delivered by a character in Hugo, the director's first film aimed at a family audience. On one level Hugo is the broadest, most commercial film that Scorsese has ever made, but on another level it is his most intensely personal, with this great director – who has spoken admiringly of filmmakers who "smuggled" their own ideas and themes into studio pictures – turning this Christmas-time blockbuster into a heartfelt paean to the magic of cinema. At one point the kids' adventure that provides the ostensible narrative backbone to the picture simply stops, and Hugo begins to deliver an illustrated lecture on the earliest days of filmmaking and the work of Georges Méliès in particular. This is America's greatest living director paying tribute to one of cinema's greatest visionaries, and as I watched these scenes I felt I'd died and gone to movie heaven.
Whether a lesson in the life and times of Georges Méliès is what children want from their cinematic entertainment is another question entirely. Hugo is – thankfully – a million miles away from dancing penguins or squealing chipmunks, but hopefully the story of resourceful young orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) should contain enough adventure, comedy and emotion to hold their attention, even if the two distinct portions of Scorsese's film don't always mix elegantly. Hugo's problems tend to exist at a script level, and there's a certain awkwardness about the manner in which John Logan's adaptation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret handles exposition in the film's opening half. Scorsese's issue seems to be more a question of how to play it, and the film veers drunkenly between moments of quiet emotion – Butterfield and Ben Kingsley (as Méliès) give sensitive performances – and scenes of ostentatious clowning, which tend to centre on Sacha Baron Cohen's bungling Station Inspector.
The story revolves around Hugo's desire to find out what secret is hidden inside the automaton his late father left him with. This is the catalyst that leads him to Méliès – now running a failing toy shop, his artistic achievements forgotten – and to Isabelle (Chloë Moretz), who mysteriously wears a key around her neck that fits the automaton's lock. Scorsese brings a great sense of directorial verve to their clandestine quest, but he can't do much about the fact that the story is thin and repetitive, with too many scenes of Hugo running away from the Station Inspector and narrowly avoiding onrushing trains. It starts to feel like padding, as does the Amélie-like side story of romance blooming between Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour. It has been over 25 years since Scorsese made a film that ran less than two hours, and Hugo certainly feels like it could have used some disciplined tightening.
Because when Hugo is good it's an absolute wonder to behold, and it reaches its zenith during the sequences that take us behind-the-scenes on Méliès' sets, lovingly recreated by Dante Ferreti. Méliès leaps around the set in full costume (he acted in the films he directed), enthused by the possibilities of this amazing new medium. It seems almost fitting that Scorsese has adopted 3D for this particular picture – he recalls audiences flinching as they watched the Lumières' Train Arriving at the Station in 1896 – and he utilises it to create a wondrous sense of depth and space, inviting us into the impossibly beautiful world the film has created for us. There are gorgeous, magical sequences here, with Scorsese giving free rein to the fantastical in the same way that Méliès did over a century ago, and the sense of love and compassion that Scorsese brings to the silent film element of Hugo is so palpable it moved me to tears.
It's a shame, then, that the human element of the film failed to ring true in the same fashion. Moretz gives a stiff, unconvincing display and Baron Cohen's performance quickly grows tiresome, with his tentative courtship of Emily Mortimer's meek flower girl being another unnecessary addition. But Scorsese ensures Hugo is always dazzling to watch, and despite my misgivings about the manner in which it tells its story, it had a deeper emotional impact on me than any Scorsese film has in years. It's a beautiful, spectacular, ambitious picture about a man's love of making movies – whether that man is Méliès or Scorsese – and I hope it finds an audience among its intended demographic. When I looked around me halfway through the film, all of the children in my vicinity certainly seemed spellbound by it, quietly following the action with rapt attention, and at its best Hugo did make me feel like a kid again; gazing with awe at the big screen, and delighting in cinema's ability to let us see our dreams in the middle of the day.