The conjunction of 'family-friendly' and '3-D' is not auspicious, even if the film in question is directed by Martin Scorsese. But from the first shot, a kind of reverse of the famous flying scene in Peter Pan, with the viewpoint swooping over the crowded and crooked roofs of a snowy, early 1930s Paris, ducking under the eaves of the arched roof of a train terminus, and closing in on the eye of a boy peering through a chink in a clock face at the bustling life from which he, like the hunchback of Notre Dame, is excluded, Hugo establishes itself as a triumphant and lovingly crafted work imbued with Scorsese's passion for film and film history.
The boy, Hugo (Asa Butterfield), is an orphan. After his clockmaker father (Jude Law) died in a fire, Hugo fell into the care of his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone), and after his uncle disappeared he continued the work of maintaining the many clocks in the station. He lives in the wainscot world of the station's clock towers and hidden passages, snatching food from stalls and shops because he can't cash his uncle's salary cheques, avoiding the attention of the station's inspector, played by Sasha Baron Cohen as if Peter Cook was impersonating the child-snatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Hugo's only link with his dead father is a complex automaton found in disrepair in a museum storeroom. Hugo has been stealing the cogs and ratchets he needs to bring the automaton back to life from the station's toy shop; the irascible owner, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), catches him red-handed and confiscates his precious notebook containing vital sketches and plans, and the clockwork of the plot is set in motion.
Hugo enlists the help of Papa George's goddaughter, Isabelle (Cloe Grace Moretz) to retrieve the notebook; Isabelle is more than willing because she wants a real-life version of the adventures in the books she loves. When he discovers that she wears around her neck the heart-shaped key that's necessary to make the automaton work, Hugo is finally able to set the machine in motion. It draws a picture of an iconic moment in an old film Hugo's father described to him, and the pair become detectives into the life of Papa Georges. And it's here, as they delve into cinema history, that the film really comes to life. Moments from the great silent films spin around them; a film historian recalls a visit to the studio of a pioneering film maker, whose methods and techniques are recreated in loving detail (with a entirely apt cameo by Scorsese). The film maker is Papa Georges, of course, who has renounced his past after he was forced to sell his celluloid archive to a chemical firm, which melted them down to make moulded heels for women's shoes; the two children conspire to bring about his return to the public eye, a task that's complicated, as you might expect (but not exactly as you might expect) by the attentions of the station's inspector.
Adapted from Brian Selznick's book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, it's the kind of old-fashioned tale in which clues are found in libraries, the mission is not to save the world but to bring the past back to life, and the only villain is time. Its CGI and 3-D effects serve the story and contribute to the intricately furnished station set rather than punctuate the narrative with crude thrusts of shock and awe. There's plenty of steam, there are dizzy plunges and pursuits through the cogs and escarpments of huge clocks, and there's also the automaton. Does Hugo's fantastical embroidery of a real-life story (because the story of the film pioneer who disappeared, and (like many of his 'lost' films) was found again, is true) contain enough steampunk flourishes to win it a Hugo?