MARTIN Scorsese swaps the mean streets of New York for the wintry boulevards of 1930s Paris in this Oscar-tipped first foray into family films and also the 3D format.
Hugo might revolve around the exploits of a pre-teenage boy and deal with themes of childhood innocence and the death of a parent, but this impeccably-crafted adventure is too sophisticated for young audiences.
Apart from a couple of well-orchestrated chases and slapstick courtesy of Sacha Baron Cohen with a squeaky leg brace, there is little here to entertain boys and girls the same age as the diminutive hero.
Indeed, the cumbersome running time and slow-paced first half will prove a test for parents too, especially those without a love for the bygone age of cinema, which Scorsese indulges in every lustrous frame.
While the narrative has its flaws, adapted by screenwriter John Logan from Brian Selznick’s book The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, the on-screen craftsmanship is impeccable, from Robert Richardson’s stunning cinematography to Dante Ferretti’s production design and Sandy Powell’s costumes.
Even more pleasing is how well the 3D fits Scorsese’s vision, coming to the fore as the camera swoops along the concourse of a train station or darts between whirring cogs of a giant clock.
Twelve-year-old Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is raised by his father (Jude Law), who works at a museum and has a passion for cinema and mechanical devices.
The old man dies, leaving behind an intricate automaton, and Hugo is forced to live secretly in the station with his hard-drinking Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), who maintains the clocks.
When the bottle claims Claude’s life, Hugo continues to tend the clocks while stealing food from the shopkeepers without attracting the attention of the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen).
An encounter with bookish Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), goddaughter of toy shop owner Papa Georges (Sir Ben Kingsley), catalyses a journey of self-discovery that Hugo hopes will lead to a message from beyond the grave from his father.
Hugo whirs gently for the first hour, and only really kicks into gear once the boy inserts Isabelle’s heart-shaped key into the automaton and reveals one character’s true identity.
From here, Scorsese indulges his passion for cinema, lovingly recreating films of the era and paying homage to the early pioneers including the Lumiere brothers.
Butterfield is an endearing if mournful central presence, contrasting with Moretz, who is luminous in every frame.
Older cast struggle to put meat on the bones of their thinly-sketched characters, while Baron Cohen’s comic relief grates as much as it delights, including some surprisingly tender scenes with Emily Mortimer as the station florist.
Romantic subplots bloat the running time, running the risk of losing young audiences entirely.
Hugo is high art, but our hearts fail to skip a beat.