Dir. Martin Scorsese
(2011, PG, 127 min)

Before Hugo I had only seen three films in 3D. When given the choice, I almost always opt for two dimensions; the ticket surcharge hardly ever seems worth it, unless you’re in the hands of a filmmaker who might be after something more than a pay day. (The trailers accompanying Hugo include ads for cash-grab 3D re-releases of Beauty and the Beast, Titanic, and Star Wars.) Whether Martin Scorsese‘s film is better served with or without the technology is hard to say; some scenes are enhanced, others I think would have been better off without it, and still others are a wash. Its greatest weakness is high-speed action scenes, during which my eyes couldn’t process the illusion of relative depth in the midst of hectic motion in the frame. Its greatest strength is in exploring vast physical environments. Chase scenes are hit-and-miss.

But Scorsese’s use of 3D itself seems to be a tribute to his subject. He uses the latest in cinematic wonder-making science to honor Georges Melies, the trailblazing French filmmaker who at the dawn of film invented many of the methods of wonder-making we take for granted today. In a way, 3D is an extension of Melies’s achievements, because so much of cinema as we know it is the fruit of a tree he planted a century ago. Played by Ben Kingsley, Melies, as he did in life, became a toy salesman at the Montparnasse railway station in Paris after his film career ended. There he is discovered by the title character (Asa Butterfield), an orphaned boy who lives within the walls of the station and keeps the clocks running.

It’s always exciting when filmmakers step outside of their preferred genres, and among major established directors Scorsese seems more willing than most. In addition to his urban gangland dramas he has made documentaries, psychological thrillers, period epics, a Biblical epic, a literary romance, and a musical, to name a few; considering his eclectic resume, a family-friendly adventure perhaps shouldn’t have been a surprise to follow up his violent, pessimistic Shutter Island. The sheer scope of his creativity reflects the depth of his reverence of film art, which is evident in this loving portrayal. Scorsese identifies with Hugo, a young artisan building on the skills and inventions of those who came before: his late father (played in flashbacks by Jude Law) as well as Melies.

The film is unabashedly sentimental and at times surprisingly moving. It features production design by Dante Ferretti, a regular Scorsese collaborator, who makes good use of the 3D with intricate details that emphasize the depth of space, especially inside the station’s clockworks. One of my favorite elements of the film is a wind-up automaton, reminiscent of the robot from Metropolis. It has an eerie, expressionless metal face, but also conveys a sense of melancholy; it carries the losses and longing of those who have worked on it, is a receptacle for their hopes and desires. Like the movies themselves, it’s a dream machine.