Working from a shapely script by the busy John Logan (based on the illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, of those Selznicks), Scorsese and production designer Dante Ferretti pack the screen with clocks and gears and cogs and other round objects that also evoke film canisters. The 3-D is calculated to tickle you, most palpably in shots in which the stationmaster’s Doberman pinscher sticks its long snout into your face. The frames are wittily layered, the close-ups pop.
It’s too bad that the prevailing emotion is technological exuberance rather than the bereft boy’s longing for human contact. Does Scorsese feel anything for Hugo, or is the boy primarily a pair of eyes through which to ogle that set and, later, when the boy meets fantasy-film pioneer Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), to understand the need for film preservation? For all the wizardry on display, Hugo often feels like a film about magic instead of a magical film—something Steven Spielberg has made with his upcoming 3-D movie The Adventures of Tintin.
Hugo does suggest the pleasure of inhabiting an orderly ecosystem teeming with odd people of odd shapes. Baron Cohen finds all kinds of entertainingly bizarre notes with which to express his ardor for a flower-stand worker (Emily Mortimer), among them a rictus grin that would have made Peter Sellers laugh. The best performances are the clear, unfussy ones by Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz as his new friend, the girl to whom he explains his wish that the world and everyone in it were a machine. He says machines have no extra, unneeded parts, and if he were a piece of a machine he’d have a reason for being. We know, of course, that he is a piece of a machine: Scorsese’s Colossal Stupendous 3-D Thrill Generator. It’s not clear if the irony is intentional.