When I first heard that Martin Scorsese was making a family film, I couldn't help but remember Bette Midler's response to the 1973 megaflop Lost Horizon: "I never miss a Liv Ullmann musical!" The thought of a Scorsese kid's flick triggers the same sort of disconnect, a mix of morbid curiosity and vague "this can't be a good idea" dread.
Sadly, the dread is justified, because Hugo is, even in its better first half, an uneven mess. Asa Butterfield stars as Hugo Cabret, an orphan living in the walls of a Paris train station, where he tends to the clocks and avoids being discovered by the station's inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), a tyrant who lives to send orphans to the orphanage.
Hugo's late father left him a mechanical man which he is trying to repair, believing that it will deliver a final message from his father. He gets help from Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), the goddaughter of the man who runs the station's toy store (Ben Kingsley).
And up to that point, when it's just a kid's adventure movie, Hugo isn't terrible. Scorsese's visual flair comes through in some lovely shots, and there are some nice supporting performances among the background characters (Christopher Lee is charming as a kindly librarian). But Butterfield lacks charm or charisma, and he and Moretz feel like 21st-century kids playing dressup in 1920s clothes; the slapstick bits for Baron Cohen are badly timed and not funny; and Kingsley's grumpy grandpa is a familiar one-note bore.
And when the mechanical man gets repaired and turns out to be connected to early film pioneer Georges Melies, the movie stops being even mildly entertaining, turning into a long series of lectures and public service announcements about silent film history and the importance of film preservation.
Film history and preservation have long been important issues to Scorsese, but better he should have simply made a good documentary about Melies than to bury a bad one inside this movie, a didactic "family" film that will likely bore kids and parents alike.