It wasn't quite a secret screening by the time Martin Scorsese took the stage at Lincoln Center's Avery Fischer Hall Monday night, but the sneak peek of the director's 3-D fantasy "Hugo" -- shown as part of the New York Film Festival -- still generated palpable anticipation as the packed house got the first public look at the unfinished work.
The verdict? It's certainly a heartfelt feast for the eyes, but "Hugo" may lose some awards season momentum due to a less-than-satisfying plot and a fixation on silent film history that could alienate larger audiences. However, it's still a visual marvel that may be best remembered as the director's most advanced technical feat.
With a number of special effects still in post-production, "Hugo" was noticeably unfinished, as Scorsese warned during a very brief introduction. However, despite a few blocky CGI shots, the majority of the movie looked completed enough to give a clear sense for what it will offer once Paramount Pictures releases the film in late November.
The strongest ingredients of "Hugo" are largely demonstrated by the dizzying opener, a near-wordless prologue that introduces the surreal environment of a 1930s-era Paris train station in winter. A virtual camera shot soars through the air, combs the crowds and eventually lands on the close-up of a clock tower, where young orphan Hugo (Asa Butterfield, "The Boy with the Striped Pajamas") watches the scene below.
Hugo dutifully winds the clock on schedule and then heads down a neon blue slide to explore the station, dodging a suspicious security guard (Sacha Baron Cohen) and accidentally losing his precious notebook to a gruff toy maker (Sir Ben Kingsley) who confiscates it for mysterious reasons. Hopelessly alone, the boy gazes out at the world beyond the station as the camera hurls back the direction it came. The title card dominates the screen, capping a tremendous entry point into Hugo's haunting storybook world.
Adapted from the 2007 award-winning novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," the movie's supremely cinematic look is its greatest achievement, since the story eventually becomes a paean to movie magic. Over time, Hugo discovers that the toy salesman is none other than seminal magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Méliès, whose 1902 science fiction classic "A Trip to the Moon" figures into the plot.
Hugo finds his way to the movies by researching his mysterious past. After his inventor father (Jude Law, in a very brief appearance) died in a factory fire, Hugo retained a metallic automaton that he keeps by his side at his makeshift home within the clock. When Hugo befriends the toy maker's adolescent daughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz, in a far less subversive mode than required in "Let Me In" or "Kick Ass"), he discovers that the key around her neck has the ability to make the automaton draw a picture. What it draws, and how that image relates to the toy maker's solemn past, set the stage for a tale primarily concerned with early cinema history.
At this point, "Hugo" grows more interesting even as the story gradually loses interest. Hoping to learn more about "A Trip to the Moon," Hugo and Isabelle find a film history textbook in the library, providing one of several opportunities for Scorsese to play silent film clips onscreen. As a result, he pulls off the neat trick of rendering the earliest examples of the medium in state-of-the-art digital 3-D. (He even includes images of the colorized version of "A Trip to the Moon," which was recently restored.) Old and new film combine in delicate harmony, although the union is more interesting in theory than execution.
Of course, the silent films weren't designed for 3-D viewing and gain little in the updated appearance, even if they look stunning as ever. But Scorsese's interest in blending two filmmaking eras is a clever gimmick that never gets old, and will certainly thrill early cinema scholars: As the children learn about the medium, Scorsese recreates early screenings of the Lumiére brothers' fleeting actuality film "Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat," which allegedly caused audiences to duck when the train approached the camera. (This gave rise to an understanding of cinema's primal appeal as a "cinema of attractions," in the words of film professor Tom Gunning, who could certainly screen "Hugo" as part of his curriculum.)
It's a sly way of acknowledging that modern day 3-D harkens back to the earliest moving image spectacles, but "Hugo" fails to feed that perspective into the narrative. When Hugo and Isabelle meet a committed historian (Michael Stuhlbarg) who's convinced Méliès died during the first World War, they eventually gather enough information to confront Méliès about his past. That revelatory moment sets up another lovely excuse to travel back in time for a behind-the-scenes look at Méliès's innovative special effects and underlying affection for the cinema's capacity to create new worlds.
As a love letter to film history, "Hugo" delivers its message, but never fully channels it into an emotionally effective whole. Instead, it's a clever promotion for Scorsese's organization dedicated to film preservation, The Film Foundation. Stuhlbarg puts it succinctly: "Time hasn't been kind to old movies," he says, dusting off a reel.
There's litle chance that time will be kind to "Hugo," which pales in comparison to countless other works by the master auteur. And yet it also provides a solid reminder that even when he doesn't hit the mark, Scorsese still manages to create uniquely compelling work bound to instigate conversations about the themes at its center. Although technically his first children's movie, "Hugo" contains images appealing to all ages. Guided by Howard Shore's ecstatic orchestral score and that wonderfully fluid camerawork, "Hugo" is a sugary celebration of cinema's timeless appeal. Whether mainstream audiences want to join the party next month remains to be seen.
Since "Hugo" was not screened at NYFF in its completed form, indieWIRE will review the film upon its release.