A mysterious mechanical man with the ability to write and draw holds a place of honor in Hugo, Martin Scorsese's exquisite adaptation of Brian Selznick's magical, award-winning children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. And the author's description of the automaton's construction ''A cascade of perfect movements, with hundreds of brilliantly calibrated actions'' is an equally good way to describe Scorsese's achievement in making art that uses the most advanced of 3-D technology to sing a song of love to the movies, from the very dawn of the medium. For a lay audience, the result is a haunting, piquant melodrama about childhood dreams and yearnings, enhanced with a pleasant survey course in early film history. (It made me cry, without guilt.) For more advanced cinephiles, the result is a cabinet of wonders in which each shot, each experiment in 3-D perspective, and, indeed, each scene in the story's progression can be linked to what we already know about Scorsese, his work, and his well-known cinematic passions. A niggler might note that every element is at times an eensy bit too perfectly meshed and worked over. Today, I don't feel like niggling.
Hugo is played with jolting melodramatic pathos and the genetic blessing of bottomless, pale blue eyes by Asa Butterfield (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas). He is a sad young orphan who keeps the clocks running in a bustling 1930s Parisian train station patrolled by a limping gendarme. (As hammed up by Sacha Baron Cohen, the character constitutes one of the movie's few tonal dissonances.) Hugo is also the patient tinkerer who works after hours in his clock-tower hideaway repairing the automaton, gear by gear. Then a bitter train-station toy-shop keeper (Ben Kingsley at his best) and his intrepid goddaughter (Let Me In's Chloë Grace Moretz, kick-ass) set the boy on a path of discovery. Hugo both ticks and flies by, a marvel meant to be pulled from the cabinet and enjoyed again and again. A–