When you think Scorsese, you think of films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas. Maybe you think of one of his odder creations like King of Comedy or After Hours. But what you don’t think of is big-budget family adventure. And you certainly don’t think of 3D. But Hugo, a radical departure for the director, is both of the above.

Set in 1930s Paris, Hugo is the story of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a young boy who, by day, single-handedly operates the clocks for an unnamed Parisian train-station. By night he works on his automaton, a strange clockwork robot, for which he does not possess all the parts. One day he’s caught stealing by the cranky station toymaker (Ben Kingsley), who confiscates Hugo’s pocketful of clockwork apparatus along with an all-important notebook – a manual on restoring the automaton to life.

Hugo follows the toymaker home, and there meets his goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Through his friendship with the girl, he comes to discover that the toymaker is in fact George Méliès, one of cinema’s early pioneers.

At this point, the film changes direction. Hugo’s automaton fades in importance, while we explore the beginnings of cinema told through the tragic story of Méliès’ decline from cinematic virtuoso and sought-after magician to all but forgotten station toymaker.

It’s possible to forgive the plot contrivances – it’s pretty much a fable, after all – but the film’s biggest problem is the strange territory it occupies: it’s somewhere between a film for children and a film for adults, and comes dangerously close to being neither.

Beginning with stunning aerial shots of night-time Paris, and following the orphan boy as he navigates his way through the station’s labyrinthine, steaming passages, we start in the golden-hued world of a child’s escapist fantasy. Later, however, as we explore the life of Méliès and we marvel at the magic and technical brilliance of early cinema, we’re in the adult world of the film historian (in many ways the world of Scorsese himself).

In fairness, the film does try to establish a link: the main (and slightly clichéd) idea being that movies are where dreams come true, and that this has appeal for both adult and child alike. As a theme, this works; but it still doesn’t stop it from seeming like two films pasted together.

Far and away the film’s main strength is in the visuals. Every scene looks pored over, planned meticulously. And the effect is mesmerising, the level of detail and intricacy in everything from the tunnels above the station to the clockwork of Hugo’s automaton are nothing short of stunning. And as far as the 3D goes, it actually (for once) enhances the film.

Thankfully, it doesn’t have much in the way of the standard 3D gimmicks (there were barely any of the usual object-hurtles-towards-your-face moments); and unlike most other films in that medium, it’s not trying to remind you every five minutes that you’re watching something in 3D.

Visually, I’d go so far as to say it’s groundbreaking; it really does manage to breathe life into a format that has (often rightly) come under attack from all sides. But in terms of story, there’s a lot left to be desired. Trying to make a film for both adults and children is an almost impossible task, and Hugo runs the risk of being too slow and aimless for children and simply too childish for adults.

Hugo (3D)
Out now at FACT

Kristian Doyle