Hugo is not exactly a typical Scorsese movie, but then it’s hardly a typical anything. At first glance it appears to be a Jean-Pierre Jeunet movie by way of Pixar featuring a cast of mo-cap characters in the Tintin mode. Why is Hit Girl from Kick Ass talking like a character from E Nesbitt? What’s Borat doing there? Is that Dracula? What the hell is going on?

What’s going on is that Scorsese is making a movie which kids could watch without being scarred for life. It’s his first stereoscopic movie (it isn’t 3D), and although as usual with this technique, objects don’t appear to have any real roundness and form, appearing more often as flat cut-outs which move away and toward the viewer, the illusion of depth is often very well used.

It’s easy to right-off movies which are visually dazzling as all style and no substance, but that’s not an entirely fair criticism here. First of all, it really does dazzle. The production design by Dante Ferretti is absolutely eye-popping throughout and Scorsese’s camera swoops and glides through it, and seamless CGI augmentations of it, as if the director is channelling David Fincher. The story is admittedly slender, but it doesn’t grind to a halt so we can admire the execution. The spectacle of it all is part of the point.

Because this is the story of the rediscovery of the works of Georges Méliès, by way of a clockwork robot which recreates one of his designs, when Hugo finally completes the restoration job. Méliès was a pioneer of cinema in an age when spectacle was the principal attraction of the medium. While on the one hand this legitimises Scorsese’s sudden indulgence in every pixel-pumping trick in his new digital handbook, it also creates a narrative distance. The ostensible hero is Asa Butterfield as the titular Hugo Cabret – all saucer-eyed stoicism and fierce introversion. But his function in the plot is to reveal and elevate Ben Kingsley, restrained and dignified as Méliès. As uninterested as Scorsese is Hugo, he isn’t that interested in Méliès either – this is really a love letter from a filmmaker to the medium as a whole.

Still, as gossamer-thin as this is, it is still a lot of fun, populated largely by cartoon characters, to be sure, but handsomely drawn ones, with any number of top British actors given ninety seconds each to make an impact. Richard Griffiths, looking rather like Billy Bunter in his 70s, and Frances de la Tour, who put me in mind of the drawings of James Thurber, briefly flirt through the medium of pets. Emily Mortimer looks doe-eyed at evil Borat, who in his impossibly bright blue uniform and with his gammy leg and black-gloved hand, comes off like a demented blend of Doctor Strangelove, the Child Catcher and the Conductor in the Polar Express. I’m still not entirely sure that was Sascha Baron Cohen and not Andy Serkis in a body stocking. Jude Law and Ray Winstone get one fairly brief scene each. Ray Winstone!!

Standing out are Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) who doles out great lumps of exposition with a twinkly stillness which is totally arresting, and luminous Chloë Grace Moretz, who handles the cut-glass English accent with aplomb. (Why is it that Scorsese requires English accents from every cast member – does that say “Paris” to the inhabitants of Boise Idaho?)

What’s frustrating is how sanitised this all is – not just that it’s kid-friendly – but how limited in scope and ambition this is. There’s no real pain, no cost to anything, preciously little jeopardy – even the runaway train looks too pretty to carry any actual threat. Disney killed Bambi’s mother but the man who brought us Goodfellas and Taxi Driver can’t summon up any grit at all, any lemon juice to add a bit of sharpness to this sometimes cloying chocolate box of a movie.

All of which would be fine – I don’t think Scorsese has failed in his intentions, I think he’s made precisely the movie he wanted to – if it weren’t for the fact that this is the most nominated film at this year’s Academy Awards. Has Hollywood forgotten how to make truly epic films about emotions and relationships, or has the Academy just stop noticing them?

As I feared, it’s looking like a thin year. So far we’ve had one self-regarding doodle, one joyful bit of fluff, a piece of confectionary in movie form and a slice of superior soap opera which is currently the best of the bunch. The King’s Speech might have been a bit cosy, but at least it was about something.

Four down, five to go.