Martin Scorcese’s “Hugo” is almost like two films in one: half family-oriented adventure film, showing us the adventures of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) as he lives inside a train station, operating the clocks and dodging the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), and half Scorcese film lesson, most of it focused around a mysterious shopkeeper played by Ben Kingsley.
Fortunately, both of those films prove to be fairly exceptional, and when Scorcese commits to either of them, he does work beyond reproach, crafting a fantastical, inherently artificial Paris and using his 3D photography to some of the best results since it regained popularity.
While the two halves of “Hugo” may not always form a coherent whole, Scorcese often manages to bring moments of pure beauty and wonder to life, many of them thanks to the wide-eyed charm of Chloë Grace Moretz’s Isabelle, a young girl who befriends Hugo. Moretz and Butterfield have great chemistry together, and both prove to be agile, likeable young performers. Meanwhile, Kingsley gives a moving, weary performance whose nature is best left undiscussed, as it is one of the many welcome surprises “Hugo” has to offer.
If not for some tonal inconsistencies and a slightly bloated runtime, “Hugo” could be high in the running for best of the year. Scattered moments of brilliance amid two competing narratives make for a hypnotizing, undeniably memorable experience that makes great use of 3D and, in a few short scenes, almost manages to capture just what makes movies so magical, something that’s as hard to put into words as it is to fit into an interesting story. Only Scorcese could have made a family film into a Trojan Horse lesson on film, and only Scorcese could have made it into such a charming experience, one that will leave audiences happy even if all the pieces don’t quite add up.
Printed on Monday, November 28, 2011: 'Hugo' juggles two stories, gives twice the satisfaction