Martin Scorsese's decision to helm the 3-D adaptation of Brian Selznick's Caldecott-winning novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret seemed an odd and possibly addled one at first blush. But look at Scorsese's filmography sideways and this august director's late-career digression into family-friendliness makes a strange sort of sense, for beneath the blood and unpardonable French of films like Goodfellas and Cape Fear and Casino, one finds a freewheeling and wide-eyed reverence for the antic, the cartoonish, the downright silly. (Two words: Joe Pesci.)

But Hugo, it turns out, is a fairly downbeat affair, and although it does offer Scorsese the opportunity to play with his inner scamp—a nut-shot joke here, a running gag involving a snappish dog there—Selznick's flight of quasi-fictional fancy provides Scorsese with the raw material for an unexpectedly moving meditation on that most tragic of facts: getting old. The result is Scorsese's strongest non-documentary work since Casino.

Set in a vivid version of 1930s Paris so edibly adorable it might as well have been born in a crocodile tear sliding down Amélie's pristine cheek, Hugo drapes its bittersweet study of broken dreams over a plot of fairy-story simplicity. The titular pipsqueak (played by extra-terrestrially cute Asa Butterfield) is an orphan living inside the rather capacious walls of a sprawling train station patrolled by a guttersnipe-hunting station guard (Sacha Baron Cohen) and enlivened by a Tati-esque flow of murmuring humanity. When he's not busy tinkering with the station's clocks or pilfering food beneath his nemesis' nose, Hugo devotes himself to fixing his inheritance, a busted automaton rescued from museum storage by Hugo's recently deceased pop.

Hugo's quest to solve the complexity of the robot's inner workings leads him into a fraught friendship with toy shop proprietor Georges (Ben Kingsley), which in turn reveals the film's delightfully surprising (to me) project: a brief and enchanting history of one of early cinema's most renowned conjurers. But I will say no more about that. If you are unfamiliar with the finer points of Selznick's historical fiction, I suggest you stay that way, because Scorsese pulls off a few wonderful tricks with Hugo. It is a film populated by uncanny visions—dreams, films, dummies, trompe l'oeil expanses—and resonant with wonder, dolor and regret. The message: life, though brief, admits of magic. The messenger: a master magician still. PG.


SEE IT: Hugo opens Wednesday, Nov. 23, at Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Cinema 99, Bridgeport, Division, Evergreen, Lloyd Center and Sherwood.