Set against the luminous background of 1930s Paris, the family-oriented 3-D fable "Hugo" (Paramount) is a visually rich, emotionally warm adaptation of author Brian Selznick's best-selling novel, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret."
While it represents a suitable holiday treat for most, though, director Martin Scorsese's film includes fleeting passages of dialogue touching on adult matters and some mild misbehavior that hinder recommendation for all.
Scorsese's canvas is broad and crowded, but at its center stands the diminutive figure of the title character (Asa Butterfield), a 12-year-old orphan who passes a hand-to-mouth existence in one of the City of Light's great train stations. Early scenes only gradually reveal the circumstances that have left Hugo in this precarious and vulnerable situation.
Following his beloved father's death in a fire—his mother's demise had taken place some years previously—Hugo was taken in by his drunken Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), who lived and worked in the terminal servicing its many clocks. Claude, however, has subsequently disappeared.
To disguise the fact that he no longer has a guardian—and so avoid being shipped off to an orphanage by the seemingly merciless officer responsible for station security (Sacha Baron Cohen)—the mechanically gifted lad clandestinely carries on Claude's labors. In his spare time, Hugo draws on the same talents in his struggle to repair a mysterious automaton he and Dad had been tinkering with at the time of the latter's death.
Knowing that, when operative, the automaton is able to write, Hugo feels sure that his father will use the primitive robot to send him a message from beyond the grave.
Driven to shoplift the spare parts needed for his project, Hugo incurs the wrath of Georges (Ben Kingsley), an embittered toymaker who keeps shop within the terminus. But he draws a very different reaction from Georges' adopted daughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), a vivacious girl of his own age—as well as a fellow orphan—who swiftly befriends him.
These primary proceedings are embellished by the amusing romantic endeavors of Baron Cohen's increasingly sympathetic, though enduringly nameless, character as well as those of two more peripheral figures.
Along with his paean to the wondrous city by the Seine and to the realm of the imagination—a territory of dreams and eccentric inventiveness that the film skillfully navigates—Scorsese uses late-reel plot developments concerning Georges' mysterious past to celebrate the pioneers of early cinema.
Yet, while childlike in many respects, "Hugo" does raise a few red flags for the youngest. A brief side story, for instance, concerns a policeman who doubts the paternity of the child his wife is carrying and there's also a scene where Hugo—whom we've seen pilfering food stands for survival—picks the lock of a movie theater so that he and Isabelle can sneak in for free.
Additionally, kids might be frightened by Hugo's more spectacular—sometimes life-threatening—scrapes.
For teens and their elders, nonetheless, and especially for film enthusiasts, "Hugo" manages to cast a charming spell.
The film contains a few mature references, occasional peril and some implicitly endorsed petty lawbreaking. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II—adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG—parental guidance suggested.
John Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.
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