The period fable Hugo marks a number of firsts in the career of Martin Scorsese. It is his first big-budget, family entertainment. It is his first venture into the brave newish world of 3D cinema. And, more arguably, it is the first time he has made a film – even Scorsese, with his magpie borrowings – that feels utterly in thrall to someone else's vision of a city. That city is Paris, or rather, a glowing fantasia of Paris in the 1930s as seen through the busy internal life of a large railway station. The camera swoops, cranes and dashes among the crowded platforms, in and out of the station café, then up, up and away into the vaulted heights. It is a self-conscious story-book portrait that reminds you, time and again, of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2001 romance Amelie.
Here, instead of Audrey Tautou's ingratiating sprite, we have an orphan boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who by day secretly keeps the station's clockwork going, and by night works on the shiny automaton, which his horologist father (Jude Law) was trying to perfect before he died in murky circumstances. Hugo, unable to afford the spare parts for his beloved mechanical, is caught stealing them by an irascible toymaker (Ben Kingsley). Through his friendship with Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a girl of his own age, Hugo discovers that the toymaker is none other than Georges Méliès (1861-1938), the great proto-fantasist of cinema and a wizard of special effects. Flashing back through Méliès's exuberant early work (short films such as Voyage To The Moon) and his melancholy decline (his film prints were melted down and recycled, ultimately, into shoe heels) Scorsese offers not just a mini-history of cinema's origins, but a plea for film preservation.
This is all good and noble stuff, but the frame through which we watch these flashbacks is more than a little wonky. A plot involving secret keys, mysterious drawings and family interconnections is hampered by characterisation that is insipid at best, and perfunctory at worst. John Logan's screenplay sets up the enigma of Hugo's father's death – in a fire, it seems – and then drops it. Ray Winstone, like Law, gets a single scene as the boozer uncle who adopts the boy, before he too pegs it. Sacha Baron Cohen tries hard as an orphan-hating station inspector, but his physical mishaps are weedy panto-level foolery, and not funny enough.
Emily Mortimer as a flower girl and Helen McCrory as Madame Méliès provide window dressing. As for young Butterfield and Moretz, they are ciphers, without personality, a script-writer's vague idea of adolescent loneliness and resilience. Fantastical though it is, the story needs something to anchor it in a recognisable humanity – and it's not coming from the cast.
There is nothing wrong with Scorsese wanting to celebrate cinema's first cracklings of genius, and his recreation of bravura moments – the Lumière brothers' famous film of a train that scatters the watching audience, for instance, or Harold Lloyd clinging on to the precipitous clock-face – goes deep into his own obsessive love of movie ingenuity. But it is mismatched to a tame and synthetic family-based confection that moves at a slouch and provokes nothing like the pathos intended. Fluid camerawork and gleaming production design, the Scorsese hallmarks, are small recompense for storytelling as hollow as this.