Train keeps a rollin’

As a child, C-3PO was expecially good at math.

As a child, C-3PO was expecially good at math.

Rated 4.0

Director Martin Scorsese gets to play in the 3-D playground for the first time with Hugo, a delightful ode to the art of filmmaking based on the book by Brian Selznick.

From the very first shot, an extended tracking shot over London and into a train station, it’s evident that Scorsese is going to have himself a good old time with the whole 3-D medium. It’s a sequence as memorable as anything he’s put to screen in the last 20 years.

The story focuses on Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a young boy living in a train station, maintaining the clocks behind the scenes. He has, in his possession, an automaton—a primitive robot—given to him by his father (Jude Law). The robot is broken, and he’s trying to fix it, but he’s too poor to buy the parts so he steals from the toy shop owner, Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley).

While some film buffs might recognize the name of Kingsley’s character, most probably do not. Méliès was the innovative filmmaker most famous for his short film “A Trip to the Moon.” His most iconic image remains a rocket ship crashing into the face of the moon, something Scorsese has fun with in this film.

The presence of the Méliès character gives Scorsese the opportunity to pay tribute to a great film pioneer. While the movie is mostly fantasy, much of what happens is based on fact when it comes to Méliès. He did indeed work in a toy shop when his film career hit the skids, and many of his pictures were sold off and melted down to make shoe heels.

The train station and the workings of the gigantic clock are beautifully filmed by Scorsese, and he makes full use of 3-D technology. Even if you are jaded when it comes to 3-D—and who could blame you, really—this is certainly one of the greatest uses of the art form to date. You might be cranky putting the glasses on because you paid good money to see Immortals last month, but once you go behind Scorsese’s clock, you’ll be happy you did.

Kingsley is his usual wonderful self as Méliès, capturing the essence of a man who has lost his way but still has a lot to give and an artful heart. Butterfield is a terrific find, an interesting looking kid who is convincing as a mechanical genius. Also along for the ride is Chloe Grace Moretz (a.k.a. Hit Girl) as Hugo’s friend. Moretz does mighty fine with her British accent. Gwyneth Paltrow, eat your heart out.

Sacha Baron Cohen provides excellent comic relief as the train station inspector, a nosy man with a leg brace and Doberman intent on finding orphans and turning them over to authorities. Good to see Cohen showing up in something as prestigious as a Scorsese movie.

When this project was first announced, it was touted as a children’s movie. I have a feeling kids would rather be bowling or ice-skating than watching this film. It strikes me as strictly for adults, with little to keep the interest of small folks, unless the particular small folk are really into trains and Dobermans. Or Borat.

The National Board of Review just declared Hugo best picture, with Scorsese taking best director honors. This kind of recognition from the National Board of Review is usually a precursor to Oscar nominations. The movie will definitely be a contender this awards season.

It’s a great thing to see an established director such as Scorsese branch out and do new things. In many ways, Hugo is unlike anything he has done before. (Nobody gets shot in the face.) It certainly stands as the most joyous of all of his pictures. If he keeps making movies like this, his future won’t be working in some strange and wondrous train station’s toy shop.