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“Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On”

Review: “Hugo”

Grade: A- (SEE IT)

WHAT DO YOU get when you combine Martin (“Mean Streets,” “Raging Bull”) Scorsese and Brian Selznick’s 2007 children’s book about a twelve-year-old orphan named Hugo who lives behind the clocks in Paris’s Gare Montparnasse?  A kid gangster in a beret who, “Taxi Driver”-style, flashes his handgun while asking repeatedly: “You talkin’ to me?  You talkin’ to me?  Well, you must be talking to me cuz I’m the only one here”?

Nah, you get the most miraculous children’s film of 2011, and in large part because Hugo Cabret (a soulful Asa Butterfield) is the only one there, pathetically so, though post-war Paris buzzes all around him.  Little Cabret is a ragamuffin whose clockmaker father (Jude Law) has left him all alone inside the walls of this bustling metro.  Reminiscent of the famously long and unbroken tracking shot in which Henry Hill enters the Copacabana nightclub in “Goodfellas,” the camera glides through the human traffic inside the Montparnasse.  Hot on Hugo’s trail is the station manager (a mustachioed Sacha Baron Cohen) and his Doberman Pinscher named Maximilian; the two police the station and send Hugo scurrying, mouse-like, back inside the building’s walls.

Beyond the film’s resplendent opening sequence, shot kaleidoscopically and from a child’s point of view by cinematographer Robert Richardson, a mystery soon emerges when the automaton left to Hugo by his father needs a heart-shaped key to activate itself.  Enter Isabelle, the goddaughter of a curmudgeony toy-shop owner inside the station played by Chloe Grace Moretz (the vampiric girl in the best horror movie of the 2010s: “Let Me In”) who embarks on a quest not just through Paris’s cinemas and film libraries but through film history itself.  The two go tripping through the images of early moving pictures: trains steaming toward the screen that make movie-goers jump out of their seats, trick films such as “Le Voyage Dans Le Lune” (“A Trip to the Moon”) of 1902, with its iconic rocket-in-the-eye-of-the-moon image and Venuses in lobster claws.

But makes “Hugo” really tick is that it’s also a loving splash of historical fiction.  Though Isabelle calls her godfather Pappa Georges, he is, in fact, an legend in hiding:  the film-pioneer Georges Méliès (a stern Ben Kingsley) now living incognito and hiding, like his nemesis Hugo, in plain sight.  After Hugo steals from his toy-shop, Méliès swipes Hugo’s notebook, replete with Da Vinci-like blueprints, in return.  The year 1895 was something of an annus mirabilis for Méliès (1861-1938) since, just after Christmas, it was the first time the Paris public saw a film projection.  Alongside the Lumiére Brothers, Méliès pioneered the new medium of moving pictures, but by the early thirties, had shriveled into the tedium of domestic life.  When Hugo and Isabelle set out to discover the secret past of “Pappa Georges,” they enter the rabbit-hole of movie history, a fitting journey for the first true family film from Mr. Scoresese (whose efforts to preserve and restore classic films are well-known).  Restoration is what this film is about: finding the heart to activate the automaton, an obvious analogue with the stuck-in-time Méliès, also much in need of revival.

Speaking of his father, Hugo tells Isabelle rapturously: “He went into a dark room and saw a rocket go into the eye of the moon.  The movies are a dream in the middle of the day.”  That’s a pretty apt description “Hugo” itself; he’s the little horologist that could.