By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Audiences at this year's Telluride Film Festival got first dibs on seeing Georges Melies' gloriously restored 1902 silent film La voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), a pioneering feat in color— using lens filters and hand-painted frames — and crude special effects by today's standards.
Best known for its image of a rocket ship stabbing the eye of the man in the moon, the 14-minute fantasy convinced me that Melies was the James Cameron of his day; a game-changer with audacity to match his vision. Melies is practically forgotten now by all except the most ardent cineastes. Director and film preservationist Martin Scorsese wants to change that.
Scorsese's imaginative introduction to 3-D filmmaking is Hugo, with Melies and his seminal film front and center ... eventually. Hugo is wonderment for the eyes from the outset yet doesn't reach the heart until halfway through, when the aged caretaker of a young girl is revealed to be Melies in creative exile. Make it that far — several viewers at a screening didn't — and history comes alive.
Hugo is Scorsese's most personal film, from the standpoint of both an artist and a grandfather. He is as interested in Melies' posterity as in making a movie that his descendants can see before they're adults.
The titular character (Asa Butterfield) is the kind of urchin found in countless European coming-of-age classics Scorsese helped to preserve. His partner in solving the mystery of a heart-shaped key is Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), an intrepid sort as familiar as Hermione Granger. The key worn as her necklace was a gift from her godfather Georges (Ben Kingsley), fitting the lock of a mechanical man built by Hugo's late father (Jude Law).
Georges keeps his filmmaking past private, bitter about never being appreciated. Hundreds of his films were melted down by the French army to make shoe heels, and he opened a toy shop in a bustling Paris train station. Hugo lives there, high above the crowd in a clock tower, keeping the timepiece wound and rebuilding his father's automaton with parts stolen from Georges' toys.
Scorsese spends a bit too much of his first hour exploring 3-D aesthetics, using the effect for swooning depth of vision rather than in-your-face thrills (save for two dream sequences inspired by other classic silents). Hugo is beautifully shot by Robert Richardson and designed by Dante Ferretti, making 1930s Paris pulsate again, employing Scorsese's signature tracking and crane shots. It is a striking technical achievement bordering on indulgent. But when things are this lovely, you indulge.
Hugo finds its soul when a film historian (Michael Stuhlbarg) identifies Georges, leading to a masterful flashback to the filming of La voyage dans la lune and Georges' innovations. Scorsese's obsession with cinema's possibilities and his urgency to respect a master finally provide the emotional depth his lustrous 3-D hasn't. You can hear his voice in Georges' comment to an on-set visitor: "If you ever wondered where your dreams come from, look around. This is where they are made." Hugo makes dreams real, for those curious enough to stay awake.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.