The movie is based on a novel by Brian Selznick, whose first cousin, twice removed, is the great golden age movie producer David O. Selznick, and the book is clearly a love letter to movies. But the book has the same problem the film has. It spends a lot of time - too much time, in my opinion - in the train station where the title character lives, just following his routine and his continual attempts to evade the attention of the station inspector. I will give the movie this - it actually does show us that Hugo is quite right to worry about what will happen if he is found and why it is so important that he keep the clocks running, which the book only tells the reader as almost an afterthought.
The first hour of the film is rather frustrating to get through, because it feels like it's marking time until it gets to the part that Scorsese was clearly much more interested in. For the first hour, it's like Scorsese is trying to make the kind of film his friend Steven Spielberg is best known for. But he's not as good at it as Spielberg is, and the stakes just seem too low. The main reason this first half is tolerable is that it is so wonderfully shot and the 3D is so captivating. This is definitely a "must see in 3D" movie. It's not just a visual gimmick; the technology is actually integral to the themes of the movie. And Scorsese, who is a true artist of cinema, is using the technology in ways you've never seen before, which is very exciting to watch, even during the sections where the movie isn't as much so.
Hour One introduces us to Hugo Cabret, the orphaned son of a clockmaker who has started to learn his father's trade when the father tragically dies in a fire. He lives for a time with his inebriate uncle, Claude, with whom he lives in the walls of the train station and who teaches him how to wind the station clocks. The most important of Hugo's possessions are a wind-up automaton that his father found abandoned in a museum where he worked and a notebook with pictures and notes on how the automaton was built and which Hugo has been using to try and repair it. He's been stealing parts from toys at a small toy booth in the station, but the owner of the store catches him one day and punishes him by taking his notebook. Hugo eventually learns, with the help of the toymaker's goddaughter, Isabelle, that the toymaker is actually Georges Méliès, who was a pioneer filmmaker at the turn of the century (and, incidentally, the designer and maker of the automaton). He made something like 500 films, but his most famous is A Trip to the Moon. You may recognize this still from it.
And here's where the movie FINALLY finds its purpose. There's a bit of talk about halfway through the film about machines having a purpose, and that when they're broken they can't fulfill that, and how people are much the same way. This movie is (I suspect unintentionally) the perfect metaphor for that, because it doesn't find its purpose until this point. Méliès is a very sad man. He doesn't like to talk about his time as a filmmaker, and possibly has forgotten or blocked out a great deal of those memories, because he believes no one cares about or remembers his work. It is unfathomably tragic that nearly all his films were melted to make shoe heels or else recycled to make new film and that (we believe at the time) there is only one of his films that remains intact. And the rest of the film is as much a meditation on the magic of filmmaking and the importance of film preservation - a longtime passion of Scorsese's - as it is a conclusion to the story.
This second half is simply magical, and I think the movie might have worked better if it had pruned or truncated the story of Hugo and centered the film much more on Méliès and his legacy. Ben Kingsley gives easily the most compelling performance as Méliès, and Helen McCrory is almost as delightful as his wife, Jeanne. I can't quite put into words how amazing the behind-the-scenes filmmaking scenes are, as well as the stunning recreations of some of early cinema's most iconic shots. If I were only to go by this section of the film, this would be my favorite of the year, hands-down. But I can't quite ignore the first half.
I really would like to see this again and give it another shot (though I can't imagine I'll have the time). The reason for this is because I suffered what is easily the WORST audience I have ever had the misfortune to sit with. There was a loud-talking woman who had to be emphatically told (twice!) to be quiet just as the movie was starting. There were so many latecomers - some of them as much as an hour into the film's running time - that I lost count. And the man a few seats down from me was (perhaps unconsciously) tapping his feet continuously throughout the film as if he was practicing choreography. It's possible I might have been more receptive to the film if I hadn't spent most of it in a rage at my fellow moviegoers. It was Thanksgiving Day, and I know there were people there who don't get to the movies frequently, but that's no excuse. Audiences like this are a huge reason why people don't go out to the movies anymore.