For all its digital enhancements and three-dimensional whistles and bells, Hugo - Martin Scorsese's screen version of Brian Selznick's graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret - turns out to be as much an instructional film as any of this director's documentaries on post-War Italian cinema or 1960s pop icons. The child heroes of Hugo are given the run of bookshops, and sneak into cinemas; part of the film's project, it seems, is to give them - and by extension, the younger members of the audience - a taste of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, or a Harold Lloyd comedy. "Thank you for the movie today: it was a gift," heroine says to hero after they've witnessed the latter, and we might similarly see Hugo as Scorsese's gift to a whole new generation: a My First Cinema Primer, schooling the kids in the ways of celluloid just as the Harry Potter movies did with wizardry, and the Twilights with abstinence.
We're on a railway concourse in Paris, midway through the 1930s: Hugo (Asa Butterfield), the latest of kidlit's many orphans, has been left to tinker, the son of an inventor dad (Jude Law, in flashbacks) who's passed on both a degree of engineering skill and a mute, somewhat creepy automatron that requires a heart-shaped key in order to function. Hugo spends his days bouncing around the concourse, between two forbidding adults: the station's Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, a little under-directed), obsessed with packing undesirables off to the orphanage, and 'Papa Georges' (Ben Kingsley), a rather grumpy figure who runs a toy shop on the platform with his god-daughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). If Georges seems to be hiding out from the world here, that's because he's a figure in decline: Georges Méliès, the godfather of fantasy cinema, who made - among many other glorious shorts - 1902's A Trip to the Moon, and really did end up selling toys in the Gare Montparnasse, which goes to show the thanks the movies are sometimes capable of giving.
The adaptation, by John Logan, has an odd structure, taking an hour to immerse us in station life, and then another to reveal Méliès' true identity. For all his youthful dashing about, Hugo remains more or less a bystander - a watcher-in-waiting, such as Scorsese hopes to attract to the multiplex - and has nothing much to do, save to keep himself out of the Inspector's clutches. This will involve some phony suspense towards the end, modelled on Lloyd's iconic "clock hang" from Safety Last, but it's difficult to see why Hugo's given title billing. Plot in the conventional sense never seems to come through; the film maintains a lovely, lingering atmosphere, but one wonders how much of that has been engineered to keep the audience from noticing something's missing.
That said, there is much to dazzle, and indeed divert or distract. Hugo is halfway between a cabinet of antiquities and a state-of-the-art Centre Pompidou, putting its clocks, cogs and motors in plain 3D sight, the better to show its workings and sources and direct our gaze towards what Scorsese believes we should be looking at. For what makes Hugo tick isn't story per se, but history: in places, it resembles no less than an illustrated film-studies lecture, with Scorsese our breathless guide, regularly stopping the action to point another attraction or spectacle out to us. Look at this, the film pants: Buster Keaton in The General! Louise Brooks! Nosferatu! And! And!
Hugo is never less than visually engaged, and engaging - how could it not be, with these influences, backed up by Dante Spinotti's production design and Robert Richardson's cinematography? It's a marked improvement on Spielberg's 3D Tintin: rather than rushing mindlessly through this world, Scorsese enjoys spending time here, populating it with welcome character actors (Richard Griffiths, Christopher Lee, Frances de la Tour) and hordes of extras. (The film's crowd scenes, replicating the ebb and flow of any station concourse, may be its most evocative aspect.) The big set-pieces are fully integrated and narratively legitimate, rather than prepared with an X-Box in mind, but you sense Scorsese's real interest lies in such sidebars as the flashback to Méliès' Starfilm studios, with its mermaids and men dressed as lobsters, or in recreating the effects of the Lumière brothers' L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat with stereoscopy.
If Hugo suffers in comparison with any other release of the 2011 award season, it's likely to be with The Artist, a work similarly committed to conjuring up the past on screen, and nostalgic for the days of celluloid even as it opens wide on 300-odd digital prints. That film's French director, Michel Hazanavicius, is a big kid having fun with the conventions of early cinema, whereas Scorsese, as an American approaching French subject matter, is altogether in thrall to Méliès and his legacy. Perhaps this is why his juvenile leads, whose sole function is to take note of what the film wants to school us in, seem like such blank slates: we might expect as much from Butterfield, after the naggingly insipid The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, but Moretz - a vampire of sorts in Let Me In, a child assassin in Kick-Ass - really does appear as though she's been told to shut up and behave herself this time. The last major US family film to unfold in Paris, Pixar's Ratatouille, received a kicking in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma for getting its recipes wrong; one suspects the reverence of Hugo, its project to not only resuscitate, but bolster the reputation of a figure beloved of the Cinémathèque, will ensure it receives an easier ride across the Channel.
Scorsese has, it's true, settled nicely into his role as a professor of the moving image, though his ideal medium of expression may now be interviews, documentaries and restoration events, rather than the somewhat middling commercial enterprises that have come to replace the red-blooded cinema of his own past. Hugo, for its part, is the kind of thing parents can feel good about taking their offspring to see over the brain-rotting alternative of a Happy Feet sequel, but that inbuilt sense of instructionality - and the fact those same parents will end up having to explain whole acts of it to their bemused, if not outright bored progeny - counts against it as entertainment in the first instance. It's hard, after all, to fully submit to magic when there are footnotes to be consulted, and all you can hear is the sound of several dozen cogs whirring.
Hugo is on nationwide release.