It's the new Martin Scorsese film - always a cinematic event, even if he hasn't directed a genuinely excellent film since 1995's Casino (a film of such genius that I really can bore for England about it). Since becoming part of the establishment his films tend to be plot-driven amusements (e.g. Shutter Island, The Departed) or whimsical expositions (The Aviator, Kundun). Hugo actually falls between the two. Based on Brian Selznick's inventive novel, it permits Scorsese combine his interest in early cinema with an orphan-boy-quest kids' movie.
Set in a kind of alternative Hollywood version of 1920s Paris, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is the orphaned son of a watchmaker (Jude Law) who lives in the Gare Montparnasse, winding up the station clocks while avoiding the priggish station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) who is intent on sending little boys like Hugo to the orphanage. Eventually he falls in with grumpy toymaker Georges (Ben Kingsley) and his god-daughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), inadvertently revealing Georges' secret history and, ultimately, helping him to come to terms with it.
But does it succeed? Weeeell... not quite. Let's get the downsides out of the way: it's too long, it's sprawls, the plotting is uneven (it is adapted from a pretty large book) as are one or two performances, and the 3D/CG, while kind of 'the point' given that the major theme is that of cinematic innovation, still intrude on the film (my long held conviction is that cinema is primarily for telling stories; it is not part of the visual arts family, nor is it a relative of the firework display or conjurer's trick).
On the plus side: there are sequences which are up there with Scorsese's best. He's always one of cinema's great 'explainers', especially when revealing the inner workings of hitherto mysterious cliques; in the case of Hugo the exposition of the early silent movie business is just wonderful. And while I generally don't care for 3D, it is well done I suppose. The score is luscious, it's as well shot throughout as you'd hope and the production design is consistently excellent. There is creditable depth to the film - characterization is never two-dimensional, and the slightly fairytale version of reality Scorsese creates is beautifully and convincingly realised.
And performances: Ben Kingsley (or Sirben Kingsley, as he prefers to be known) is superb: restrained and convincingly grumpy, he holds the film together. Sacha Baron Cohen does gangling pratfalls superbly, his comic timing is generally excellent and he gives his character just enough humanity for his arc to succeed. The real breakout magic comes from Helen McRory as Georges' faded film-star wife - she's absolutely stellar and hopefully will start picking up some more high-profile roles as a result of this performance.
The two child performers contrast - Asa Butterfield is as good as could be expected of a 12 year old expected to hold a blockbuster movie together. As with (nearly) all child actors, he simply can't offer the range or depth that an adult can, but he performs creditably here. Chloe Grace Moretz, so good in Kick-Ass and (especially) Let Me In, is inexplicably poor here. Perhaps by channelling mid-period Hermione Granger in accent and appearance, she's psychically inherited the younger Emma Watson's flat staginess.
The bit-part players - who are illustrious and legion - are generally fine (I particularly enjoyed Kevin Eldon as a cuckolded gendarme, and Ray Winstone's Clemenceau-ish moustache), but their characters just serve to illustrated the lack of control over the plot - we simply don't need most of these people in the plot.
Final verdict then: too childish for the grown-ups and too long-winded and (eek) boring, I fear, for all but the most precocious children. A valiant and dignified stab at a kids' film, but in the end, a noble failure.