Our aging masters are getting in touch with their inner children this year. Woody Allen’s fantasy-tinged Midnight in Paris has a lightness of spirit and a sense of play that audiences embraced, giving its 75-year-old director his biggest popular success. Resisting a walker and cane the 65-year-old Steven Spielberg has back-to-back family pictures out at Christmas, The Adventures of Tintin (a smash hit overseas) and, in a more serious vein, War Horse, waiting for his closeup after its successes in print and onstage. It’s not just the early bird dinner crowd who are in on the act this season–Stephen Daldry, 50, presents his adaptation of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a boy’s-eye view of 9/11, and Cameron Crowe returns to the movies with kids and animals with We Bought a Zoo.

Leave it to Martin Scorsese to raise the  bar high for his peers. Scorsese, 69, has a 12-year-old daughter, and parenting comes before auteurism. (“No, sweetie, you can’t see The Departed. Not Shutter Island, either. Maybe the next one.”) Or perhaps they fused. I think he saw Brian Selznick’s award-winning children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret (written by a relative of the maverick producer David O. Selznick) and realized that a book so steeped in movie lore had to be made into a movie, and that he had to make it. And so we have Hugo, the best Christmas gift a cinephile could ask for.

We begin with a sweeping 3D…yeah, I know, 3D. Surcharges, ripoffs. Scorsese knows what a bummer 3D has become, and his judicious use of it, right at the outset, restores its wonder. We begin with a sweeping 3D tracking shot of a Paris railway station, which, deftly and amusingly, introduces us to our supporting cast as they go about their business in a fantasia of the 20s on a grander scale than Allen’s–the flower girl (Emily Mortimer), the cafe proprietress (France de la Tour), the newspaper seller (Richard Griffiths), and the bookshop owner (Christopher Lee, himself a history of cinema, extending an unprecedented career rejuvenation). Quite literally overseeing their activities with his wide blue eyes is Hugo (Asa Butterfield), who, from his berth in the disused apartments above the station, keeps all the station’s timepieces in good working order. The one thing the resourceful Hugo, an orphan, can’t fix is the prize object bequeathed to him by his clockmaker father (Jude Law)–an automaton, with a heart-shaped lock. To solve the mystery of the humanoid object the light-fingered lad steals screwdrivers and the like from Georges (Ben Kingsley), the gruff operator of the station’s toy shop.

When Georges catches Hugo in the act and takes the boy’s precious notebook, which details the operation of the automaton, we’re plunged into deeper mysteries of the heart. Joining Hugo in his quest to uncover what makes the device, and Georges, tick, is Georges’ goddaughter (Let Me In ‘s Chloe Grace Moretz), who longs for adventure. Providing some of it is the watchful station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who, with his foreboding dog, polices the urchins who wander in off the street (and, with a leg shattered in the Great War, is linked to the melancholy-looking automaton). The rest comes from the revelation that Georges is in fact Georges Méliès–the movies’ first fantasist, renowned for the screen’s first science fiction movie, A Trip to the Moon (1902), and other spectacles rooted in an earlier career in stage magic. Méliès is long thought to be dead, and Georges is content to bury the past, for reasons of his own.

Train stations, automatons, the restless ghosts of cinema–all catnip for a filmmaker and preservationist like Scorsese, who, with frequent collaborators like production designer Dante Ferretti and cinematographer Robert Richardson, has come up with his most voluptuous movie since The Age of Innocence (1993), one that 3d brings you that much closer to. (The pop-out effects, like scraps of burned and tossed papers blown about you, are emotionally affecting, which makes all the difference.) While set in Paris, and mindful of its cinematic legacy, the movie is at heart English, with intimations of David Lean’s Dickens adaptations, Hammer films, Chaplin and Peter Sellers all bound up in Baron Cohen (who rises to the challenge), and the work of Michael Powell, Scorsese’s touchstone. What a joy it must have been for his long-time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, to craft a film that recalls so vividly those of her husband’s.

Do we get to share in that joy? Mostly, yes–this isn’t a wearily obsessive Scorsese picture like Gangs of New York (2002), where you felt the weight of the period recreation (the unironic millions spent on poverty) and the decades it took to get the thing off the ground. The pratfalls and other bits of business involving the subsidiary actors, including that dog looming into your face, keep it buoyant. It must be said that for all of his command of 3D, however, the screenplay, by John Logan (The Aviator), has some of the flatness of a picture book, and that a movie concerned with time feels a tad overlong. Sugar highs burn off, not that the film, with a lilting days-gone-by score by Howard Shore, is excessively sweet.

Cutting through the sentiment is Kingsley’s commanding turn as one of the fathers of cinema, who feels that he’s lived well past the expiration of his contribution. Not so, insists his descendant. Film has no sell-by date, and to prove it Scorsese has recreated and restored Méliès’ 100-year-old movies in the context of Hugo, bringing them to startling life once more. He’s made the past present for the generations to come, as a good father should.