TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Martin Scorsese has made his first 3-D film, "Hugo", an adaptation of Brian Selznick's illustrated novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: In "Hugo", Martin Scorsese has hired himself a bunch of A-plus-list artists and techies, and together they've crafted a deluxe, gargantuan train-set of a movie, in which the director and his 3-D camera can whisk and whiz and zig and zag and show off all his expensive toys - and wax lyrical on the magic of movies.
The source is Brian Selznick's illustrated novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," which takes place in 1931 and centers on an orphaned 12 year old, played in the film, by Asa Butterfield, who lives in a flat in the bowels of the Paris train station.
Hugo's guardian, his drunken uncle, had the job of setting the station's clocks until he suddenly went missing. So now the boy, to cover for the disappearance and stay out of an orphanage, does the job in secret, stealing through tunnels, up rickety ladders, and over catwalks, careful to avoid the station master played by Sasha Baron Cohen with his relish for orphan-catching.
Hugo's only company is a semi-complete automaton, a kind of mechanical man that his late machinist dad, played by Jude Law, seen in flashback, discovered in a museum storage area. The boy has a supernatural inkling that the automaton holds the key to his future; alas, the key the automaton doesn't hold is the one that would wind it up and set it in motion. That's missing.
Scorsese, working from a shapely script by John Logan, is hell-bent on bedazzling us. He and production designer Dante Ferretti pack the screen with clocks and gears and cogs and other round objects that also evoke film canisters which show up later, when pioneer fantasy filmmaker Georges Melies turns up as a character.
The 3-D cinematography by Robert Richardson is calculated to tickle you, most obviously in shots in which the station manager's Doberman Pinscher sticks its long snout into your face, more subtly when the train station is layered with booths and passengers at all kinds of levels, and when overhead shots create odd spatial tensions in the frame.
Scorsese has studied the best 3-D films, not just Cameron's "Avatar" but Hitchcock's "Dial 'M' For Murder," and, as far as I'm concerned, redeemed this increasingly tiresome form. Cameron has agreed, calling "Hugo" at a recent screening, a masterpiece. I liked the film a lot, but am not so ready to use the M word.
When Melies appears, the movie becomes a plea for Scorsese's film-preservation cause - which I'm 100 percent behind - but which introduces an element of self-consciousness that pulls the narrative off the rails. For all the wizardry on display, "Hugo" often feels like a film about magic instead of, well, a magical film - something Steven Spielberg has made with his 3-D movie "The Adventures of Tintin", opening in December.
The simplest things in the film come through strongly, though, like the performance of Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz as his new 13-year-old friend. On a rooftop above Paris, Hugo evokes the connection in his inner world, between humans and machines.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLIP OF "HUGO")
ASA BUTTERFIELD: (As Hugo) Right after my father died, I would come up here a lot. I'd imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn't be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason too.
EDELSTEIN: Those kids have a wonderful transparency, and the rest of the cast is a treat. Baron Cohen finds all kinds of bizarre notes in which to express his ardor for a flower-stand worker played by Emily Mortimer, among them, a rictus grin that suggests Peter Sellers. That grizzled genre vet, Christopher Lee, now Sir Christopher, lends majesty to the role of a bookshop owner.
Sir Ben Kingsley, as Moritz's godfather, who runs a toy stand, is mysteriously cold and brittle, even cruel, but when all is revealed we warm up to him. At its best, in scenes with the automaton and its Mona Lisa smile, and in an explosive runaway-train nightmare, Scorsese is as deft as Spielberg.
But when he shows us a famous clock-hanging sequence in Harold Lloyd's "Safety Last" and tries to replicate it, he's trying too hard. The clips from such Melies wonders as "A Trip to the Moon" show a delirious unreality that's a world away from "Hugo's" literal-minded wonders. But for all my reservations, you must heed the subliminal advertising in the title: You Go.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can watch clips from "Hugo" on our website, freshair.npr.org where you can also download Podcasts of our show.