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Martin Scorsese’s visually grand and intricate new 3-D movie, Hugo, gives us spirited youthful adventures in 1920s Paris. It’s about vital old mysteries, wonderment, emotional connections, and the influence of machines on the imagination. That’s a lot, to be sure, but I’m pretty certain that Hugo is also about Scorsese’s well-known fascination with movies as an art form whose examples must be protected and, where necessary and possible, patched up. As the movie’s titular young hero pursues his sometimes harrowing adventures, his fate touches the life of a moviemaker from the medium’s dawning years, Georges Méliès.

At one point Hugo (Asa Butterfield) incredulously asks a new friend, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), “You’ve never been to a movie?” So he takes her to one, in his unorthodox fashion (a Harold Lloyd comedy), and later, she thanks him for this “gift.” The sentiment must resonate with Scorsese.

Hugo is the orphaned son of a clockmaker (Jude Law, in a cameo). He secretly inhabits a cramped aerie far above the vast concourse of a Paris train station. He lives by his wits and his skills, moving surreptitiously through elevated tunnels and catwalks to wind the station’s clocks, as his gone-missing, drunken lout of an uncle once did. Hugo hopes that if the clocks keep going, his uncle’s disappearance won’t be detected, and he won’t be sent to an orphanage. He stands in some danger from the rigidly zealous station cop (Sacha Baron Cohen, in an amusing, touching turn).

Hugo’s precarious existence is really centered on his painstaking and frustrating work repairing an old mechanical toy man, an “automaton” that he and his father had been reconstructing. And this leads the boy to an embittered toy stand proprietor (Ben Kingsley), who becomes another threat to this crucial project.

Scorsese’s first venture into both family fare and 3-D has to be accounted a success. Here and there he presses too hard on the use of his new dimensional tool, but it’s a forgivable excess. He and his movie have been splendidly served by the lead performance. Butterfield has an involvingly expressive face and voice, and his controlled, subtly varied use of them is rare in one so young (and in a lot of older actors).

Hugo implicitly links the mysterious wonderment of the damaged automaton and the plastic magic of the movies. (Méliès and his fantastically whimsical pictures fit securely in this thematic structure.) Machines are imaginatively important to the artistry and craft of several of the characters, as they were to Méliès. Scorsese provides a more benign fate for the French pioneer than history and the film industry did, but this too is excusable if the movie inspires some interest in that history.

There’s more than one metaphor in Hugo, but the movie itself symbolizes Scorsese’s passion for movie history.

Watch the trailer for Hugo

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