Not quite a comic and not quite a children's book, Brian Selznick's The Invention Of Hugo Cabret aims to be a movie on paper; and though writer/illustrator Brian Selznick never quite hits his target, he achieves some startling effects along the way. Selznick divides the book between roughly 250 pages of text and more than 250 full-page illustrations—the latter of which read like storyboards, moving through spaces as though mapping them out for a cameraman. Together, the two haves of The Invention Of Hugo Cabret tell the story of an orphaned pre-teen named Hugo in early '30s Paris, as he tries to repair an automaton that he and his father rescued from a museum fire shortly before his father's death. Hugo is convinced that the clockwork robot contains a message left behind by his dad, but in order to finish the fix-up, Hugo has to steal tools and gears from a grumpy old toy store proprietor in the train station where the boy hides out.
Methodically, Selznick drives this story past its origins as a simple cat-and-mouse chase, turning it into a mini-history of cinema's silent era, as well as a meditation on the contraptions that captivate us. The Invention Of Hugo Cabret is meant to be one of those contraptions, and while Selznick's drawings lack the sense of animation and narrative drive that traditional cartooning requires—and while his prose is functional at best, fussy at worst—the book's formal daring is delightful in and of itself. And it's not just about Selznick showing off either. He's evoking myths, and ruminating on the potential of both objects and people to be more than they seem. In that context, The Invention Of Hugo Cabret is primarily a device to record our past, preserving lessons for the next generation. In Hugo Cabret's case, the lesson is that while technology can seem so arcane as to be almost magical, the real magic is that mere humans dreamed it up.