10/11/2011 10:34 am ET | Updated Dec 11, 2011

'Hugo,' Martin Scorsese's Unfinished Family Film, Screens At The New York Film Festival

The New York Film Festival held a secret screening of a "master" filmmaker's work-in-progress Monday evening. The surprise was spoiled hours before the screening, when it was revealed that the night's feature would be Martin Scorsese's family-friendly 3-D film "Hugo." It was a clever way of getting a bunch of adults -- cinephiles, no less -- in the same room to watch a kids movie. The last time the festival pulled such a stunt was in 1991, when they screened "Beauty and the Beast," a film that went on to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture.

Twenty years later, the NYFF has elevated another film that, Scorsese aside, could use a little buzz to get it noticed by a more critical audience. By the end of the screening, "Hugo" had added a sizeable number of supporters to its cause who, much like "Harry Potter" fans, will likely spread the word that this is not just for kids. Yes, it has the trappings of a children's story, with a plot driven by a determined orphan boy (Asa Butterfield), plucky young girl (Chloe Moretz), and based on Brian Selznick's novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret." But in terms of substance, kids will be bored by much of "Hugo," the heart of which is an homage to the birth of cinema. It often falls into a reverie-like state, as if Scorsese is inviting us into his cinematic dreams and pointing, "Look! Isn't it beautiful?"

Scorsese was on hand Monday night to introduce his unfinished film's first screening:

So, this is a work in progress, which means, it's not color-corrected, there are things that are called pre-visualizations, which means they're kind of crude, computer generated people. Which they promise are going to be, kind of, human. Pretty soon I hope. Visual effects are temporary, the 3D is still being worked on, and the sound mixes are temporary and the music, for the most part, is still temporary. It's the actual score, but it's played on temporary instruments. He's recording it now in London, Howard Shore. And the credits are 2D I think, there aren't that many on it right now. And you will see a few wonderful greenscreens.

He didn't offer much insight, aside from making it clear that the operative word here is "unfinished." But even this brought an element of charm for an audience of film buffs, who were more pleased by the glimpses of greenscreens than distracted. Full reviews are off-limits for now, but a few preliminary thoughts come to mind after the initial screening:

  • Kinks aside, "Hugo" is an engaging film that, to repeat, is equally for adults and children, and perhaps more for the former. As the adventure deepens, so thankfully does the film's roots in early cinema as it settles around one, mysterious French film auteur, and indulges the audience in flashes of this old world (the word "magical" is thrown around a lot).
  • With an irritable Ben Kingsley at the helm and the hilarious Sacha Baren Cohen popping up as the lovable villain, the film has enough touchstones to guide the children along. These child-adult interactions make for the best scenes, and "Hugo" succeeds when it's unafraid of being sentimental, humorous, and adoring of its subject matter. For most of the film, that's what it does.
  • "Hugo" stands at 127 minutes and its plot could benefit from a little trimming (a change Scorsese did not mention in his introduction).
  • One of the most striking things here, is the use of 3-D, especially given its clear loyalty to old cinema. But what Scorsese does here is show that you don't have to choose between old and new. Though unfinished, there's enough to see what can be done when 3-D is used with a light hand, and feels more like an extra way of welcoming the audience into the story, and less like an obtrusion. In a film that is defined by the sense of wonder that surrounded early cinema, Scorsese offers us just a little of what that might have felt like.

"Hugo" is in theaters Nov. 23.

Watch the trailer for "Hugo," and don't judge it by its cheesy music: