Hugo represents unfamiliar territory for Martin Scorsese, being both his first family film and his first 3D project, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the movie. The legendary director has crafted a charming piece of all-ages entertainment that’s absolutely stunning in its use of live-action 3D — even in the unfinished version I saw, a work in progress with visible green screens, some very rough CG, and a temporary sound mix. This is the kind of work filmmakers are talking about when they insist it isn’t just a cheesy, money-grabbing gimmick, but a true next step in cinematic technology, because this is the kind of movie that’s actually worth shelling out the extra bucks and dealing with those uncomfortable disposable glasses for. Read on after the jump.

Based on an award-winning children’s book by Brian Selznick, Hugo stars Asa Butterfield as the titular orphan, who secretly resides in train station in 1920s Paris. When he befriends a lively young girl named Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), the two team up to solve a mystery left behind by Hugo’s late father (Jude Law) — a puzzle that involves a heart-shaped key, a cranky toymaker (Ben Kingsley), a broken automaton, and a stealth lesson in early film history.

Butterfield and Moretz are both excellent here, as are the adult actors surrounding them. Special praise needs to be given to Sacha Baron Cohen, who provides comic relief as the hardass station inspector. Cohen is a little menacing, a lot funny, and surprisingly endearing. An interpersonal subplot involving him and the flower seller (Emily Mortimer) provides some of the film’s sweetest moments.

The major flaw with Hugo is its pacing. For the first hour or so, it’s not quite clear where the story is headed, and the momentum suffers somewhat as a result — likely a huge drawback for younger or more impatient viewers. It’s not until the second half that Hugo really comes alive, when it reveals itself as a love letter to old-school cinema. Scorsese shows us exactly how exhilarating the art form can be, whether you’re creating it or consuming it; some of the most affecting moments occur when characters show just how great it feels to be on that high. Which isn’t to say you’d need to be a cinephile to appreciate Hugo. The broader theme of creative passion and its ability to give meaning to life certainly isn’t limited to films. But if you do happen to be into very old movies, Hugo will hold an added layer of appeal.

Interestingly, it’s Hugo‘s interest in old-fashioned technology that makes it such an appropriate setting in which to demonstrate the possibilities of newfangled 3D. The really impressive use here isn’t in the dazzling action set pieces — though happily, there are some of those too — but in the subtler scenes, where it’s seamlessly dispatched to make for a more immersive viewing experience. At one point, Hugo tells Isabelle that the Lumiere brothers’ first audiences fled in terror from the train that seemed to be barreling right through the screen. Though the invention of 3D obviously can’t compare to the invention of motion pictures, I felt I understood, in some small way, why they ran.

The trailers for Hugo had me assuming it would be a sci-fi or fantasy film. It’s mostly not. What Hugo really takes joy in is the magic of cinema — its ability to transform and transport — and given Scorsese’s long, accomplished history as a filmmaker, it’s impossible not to see a personal element in it. Hugo isn’t a perfect film, and those who prefer their narratives shorter or more straightforward may be irritated with its occasional meandering. But for cinephiles in particular, it’s a delightful picture that’s well worth seeing in theaters, in 3D. The fully finished film opens Thanksgiving weekend.

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