On the surface, it’s easy to underestimate “Hugo,” the latest film from Martin Scorsese, as nothing more than a populist 3D bid for family auds with a kiddie-fare plot about an orphan who lives in a train station in 1930s Paris. Then a work-in-progress cut played the famously snooty New York Intl. Film Festival.

That got the films snobs to sit up, demonstrating what about the story had really attracted the seven-time Oscar-nominated helmer (who finally won for “The Departed” in 2006). Scribe John Logan (“Gladiator,” “The Aviator”) efficiently adapts the illustrated novel by Brian Selznick, while the starry cast is gracefully led by moppet newcomer Asa Butterfield, who more than holds his own against Ben Kingsley (in an appealing, unshowy performance), Chloe Grace Moretz and Sacha Baron Cohen.

Auds suffering 3D fatigue can relish Scorsese’s smart use of the third dimension to layer and enhance the recurring clockwork imagery of the film, which centers on the mystery of an enigmatic automaton. And in the film’s second half, the solution to that mystery turns “Hugo” into a lushly realized love letter to film history, evoking early days with a childlike wonder that could prove catnip to cinephile Academy voters.

Release date: Nov. 23