When reading reviews for Martin Scorsese's Hugo, his first 3-D film (and arguably first family film, although I certainly don't see how you could say that when Bringing Out the Dead has been out for thirteen years), they tend to fall into one of two categories: the ones that tell you about who one of the major characters in the film actually is and the ones that don't. The ones that don't limit themselves, because then you can only vaguely dance around what happens in the second half of Hugo. Since it's been out for a while now and I think you're all capable of handling a "spoiler," I'm going to go ahead and tell you - in a few paragraphs.
If you're afraid that this might ruin your experience of watching Hugo (double SPOILER: it won't), please know that it's a fine film that does not actually represent a) Scorsese selling out, or b) the decline of cinema through more 3-D gimmickry. It's a fine film, one that adults and children alike will enjoy, and is a celebration of the art of cinema in the purest sense. I firmly believe you'll have a fine time watching Hugo and your kids might even learn something about the so-called "boring" world of silent, black-and-white cinema. I bet you could even get them to sit down and watch The Artist with you afterward. Well, that's your spoiler-free review. There are a few more paragraphs and then I'll go ahead and blow the "twist," so if that frets you, stick around as long as you feel comfortable, knowing I dug the film.
Of greater concern was the opening segment designed to introduce the people who work in the train station. Things start off innocently enough with Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley) and his adopted "daughter" Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), but then we start meeting people who seem to fill anonymous, stock roles you need for kids' movies. There's the fat guy, Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths), who has a crush on the lady with the hat and dog, Madame Emilie (Frances de la Tour). The dog doesn't like the man, so he's scared away. There's the nice flower lady, Lisette (Emily Mortimer), a creepy looking librarian, Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), and Django Reinhardt (Emil Lager), who plays with his band.
And then what I call the "stupid kids' crap" happens, and that REALLY worried me. See, the thing I hate about movies for kids is the idea that there need to be shenanigans that children will enjoy in order to keep them engaged, so the chase scene between Hugo, the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), and his doberman was cause for concern. Not only are there plenty of pratfalls for Cohen, who has a brace on one leg and runs awkwardly, including the inspector running into a cello and knocking over tables and chairs, but the scene culminates in the kind of groan-inducing slapstick I hate. Hugo manages to escape because one of the train doors catches the Inspector's brace, and he is dragged alongside the train until a few well placed pieces of luggage and boxes provide us with a "nut-shot," followed by a shot of the doberman looking away, embarrassed by his owner.
Thankfully, that's largely the extent of the "kids' movie crap" that prevented me from enjoying Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and most live action films with child protagonists (with the exception, of course, of Catch That Kid). After Martin Scorsese puts the pieces in place, he begins to focus less on pratfalls and anthropomorphic reaction shots, and more on a central mystery: the automation Hugo has been trying to fix. That, in large part, links Cabret with Isabelle, Georges, and his wife Jeanne (Helen McCrory).
Papa Georges, it turns out, is Georges Méliès, one of the early pioneers of fantasy films and special effects, best known for making Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) that everyone who ever took a film appreciation class or has opened a book on film history knows. By the time Hugo takes place, his films have all been lost and his career forgotten, and Georges works in the train station selling wind-up toys. I'm not really sure that his identity is such a spoiler, since there's a poster for A Trip to the Moon prominently displayed on the wall of his shop*. The filmmaker refuses to talk about his past, until Hugo and Isabelle meet Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), a film historian who happens to have found one of the "lost" films of Méliès. While the mystery of the automaton is tied up into this revelation, the second half of Hugo is largely about Méliès and appreciating film's impact on audiences.
I haven't read The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (the grandcousin[?] of film producer David O. Selznick) so I don't know if it pushes for film preservation and retrospectives as much as Hugo does or if that's Scorsese's fetish shining through (screenwriter John Logan too, I suppose). Either way, once Scorsese gets tired to stupid kid crap, Hugo makes a turn in the right direction, first as a movie about horrible things that happened to Hugo Cabret before we meet him, and then as a love letter to the movies. The stock characters filling up the train station begin to flesh out a bit more, and suddenly it feels like we're watching a real movie and not a dumb kid's movie from the director of frequently violent or disturbing films.
Speaking of which, the film has a habit of tricking audiences into forgetting the horrible ways that Hugo's first two "father figures" meet their maker: his clock-making father (Jude Law) dies in a fire / explosion in the museum he works at, and Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) drowns in the river Seine and isn't found for months (which explains how Hugo was able to continue fixing the clocks without the Inspector thinking twice about it). It's not as though he lives a charmed life, by any means; Hugo has the apartment he lives in, his automaton, and whatever he can scrounge from the station without being seen. I'm not saying Hugo has it easy or anything, is all.
I would like to point out that not only are all of the people I listed early in the review given more depth than simply filling out "types" that children can easily recognize, but Sacha Baron Cohen's Station Inspector has a character arc all of his own. Not only is he infatuated with Lisette, the florist, but held back because he's self-conscious about his brace (a result of World War I injuries), there's also a very good reason that he insists of sending children he catches to the orphanage. There are tiny touches of dialogue between the Inspector and other character that give you the impression he's a human being and not just a convenient plot device to keep Hugo from wandering about freely. I appreciate that, because it's not something you get all the time.
Hugo feels like a hybrid of children's entertainment and the passions of Martin Scorsese, a union that works in ways that a director of lesser talent would be incapable of. In fact, I don't know that anyone else could have found the delicate balance needed to keep Hugo from being boring to kids or insipid to adults. It allows the director to also sneak in a lesson about film history to audiences that won't be expecting it, integrated in such a wonderful way that it feels like the only way Hugo could end. I wish I had seen it in 3-D, if only because there are a few instances late in the movie where Scorsese plays with the technique to emulate how audiences reacted to early cinema. However, if you can't see it in 3-D, just be ready for a bumpy opening followed by an engrossing experience, even if it is in two dimensions.
* This may be the only "plot hole" in Hugo that stuck out to me. If Georges is so saddened by the loss of his films that he refuses to talk about "the past," why on earth would he keep a poster for one of his films in his shop?