A slow starter, Hugo gradually evolves into a grand celebration of the art of filmmaking that rivals anything of its ilk, including Cenema Paradiso and Day for Night.
The casting is uniformly superb. Martin Scorsese makes a spectacular find in Asa Butterfield, who plays the title character, a plucky orphan who is obsessed with resurrecting a mechanical robot, which he believes will bring himself spiritually closer to his departed dad. Chloe Grace Moretz continues her momentum from Let Me In, playing Hugo's partner in adorably lighthearted crime.
Sacha Baron Cohen nails a note of delightful incompetence as a station agent who serves as Hugo's Javert, while Ben Kingsley casts a penetrating figure as a patriarch who looks upon Hugo with scathing, bitter disapproval. The film takes the tone of a Miyazaki movie, in which the villains are usually misunderstood egomaniacs who are overcompensating for their own pain and insecurities.
Going in knowing little about the source material, I was sure we'd be in for a paint-by-numbers journey of magic and whimsy, but I loved the way the story stayed grounded. Instead of dreaming up gobbledygook, Scorsese has Hugo discover his magic internally, as he uses the idea of filmmaking to alter his bleak life. You get the sense that Scorsese found a similar vivaciousness inside himself as he stretches to bold new territory in his own career.