A founding legend of cinema has it that audiences jumped out of their seats in alarm when the Lumière brothers first screened their 1895 film of a train arriving in a station.
Cinema has been trying to get a comparable rise out of us ever since. Today, the method generally considered the fast track to big-screen rapture is 3D. Egregious overuse in the past two years has left us jaded about the possibilities – but you'd hope that, if anyone could do something special with it, it would be Martin Scorsese.
Alas, the maestro's Hugo affords little real awe, which is particularly bitter, given that the film insistently tells us – often in so many words – that wonder, enchantment, dream are the very stuff of cinema. It's surprising to find Scorsese making a 3D family entertainment, but it's not that he's yielded to the rule of the impersonal blockbuster. For behind this whimsical tale of a waif in 1930s Paris, there lies a hidden agenda very close to the director's heart: Hugo is essentially a well-intentioned lantern lecture on the glories of silent cinema and the importance of film preservation.
Young orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in the maze of corridors and staircases behind the walls of the old Gare Montparnasse. There he makes two enemies – a cantankerous old toy vendor (Ben Kingsley) and the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), a liveried martinet with a mechanical leg and attendant doberman.
A spoiler warning is probably unnecessary, as many people will know the payoff from Brian Selznick's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a singular combination of text and intricate drawings. Together with the toy seller's goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), Hugo restores a mysterious automaton and follows a trail that leads to one of cinema's greatest innovators, Georges Méliès (1861-1938). A stage magician turned master of screen trompe l'oeil, Méliès invented fantasy cinema – you could call his glass-walled studio the original DreamWorks. The best thing in Hugo is its evocation of Méliès at work: in a shot that alone justifies the use of 3D, technicians drop lobsters into a tank to evoke an underwater kingdom.
The film's bottom line is its espousal of silent cinema; if any child emerges desperate to discover Buster Keaton, or search their grandparents' attic for long-lost nitrate footage, Scorsese can count his job well done. But Hugo comes off badly by comparison with the golden oldies it celebrates. In one scene, Hugo and Isabelle thrill at Harold Lloyd hanging perilously off a clock face in 1923's Safety First. Hugo later has his own Harold Lloyd moment, yet there's no thrill of jeopardy – the moment is casually thrown away, just one of Uncle Marty's homages.
Overall, Hugo is a sumptuous dud. In the railway station, Scorsese and team – including DoP Robert Richardson and designer Dante Ferretti – have created a labyrinthine wonder, sometimes inducing authentic architectural vertigo. But the plot is a thin support for the film history class. Much of the station business consists of Hugo being chased through milling crowds, to laborious slapstick effect, by the vengeful inspector. Baron Cohen plays him with nasal echoes of Peter Cook's E L Wisty whine, a deeply unfunny performance; it's hard to care about his shy flirtation with a flower seller (Emily Mortimer, with little to do but smile sweetly under a woolly beret), since the inspector is set up as a borderline sociopath whose pleasure is to imprison stray orphans.
You wonder whether Scorsese has any sense of what amuses children and what they might find plain creepy. Or indeed, of what will interest them: for most kids, a bunch of old silent films won't be as climactic a revelation as, say, the secret of the unicorn. At least, unlike Spielberg's Tintin, Scorsese uses real people with real faces, but his actors are largely reduced to flimsy cartoons of period Frenchness; what with Howard Shore's relentlessly accordion-laced score, the film is a terrible case of Améliefication.
And it's a shock to realise that Scorsese is not very good at (or not that interested in) directing children. Butterfield is appealingly earnest as Hugo, his pallor and uncanny blue eyes making him halfway to a Tim Burton wraith. But Moretz is allowed to lay it on way too thick with her self-consciously golly-gosh performance.
Hugo's lesson is that the cinema of spectacle owes it all to Méliès – but the implicit message is also that, if the old master were alive today, he'd be working in 3D. I dare say he would – but he'd surely be doing it with more wit, mischief and, above all, economy than you'll find in this overblown, oddly studious extravaganza. And seriously, who ever thought that Martin Scorsese would stoop to getting a comic reaction shot from a doberman?
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Rachel Weisz is a victim of passion in 1950s London in Terence Davies's sultry rework of the Rattigan drama The Deep Blue Sea. Meanwhile, Gene, Fred, Ginger, Judy and other greats hoof again in Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance, a season celebrating the MGM musical, till the end of December at BFI Southbank (bfi.org.uk).