Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is a scruffy orphan who lives in forgotten spaces hidden in the walls of Gare Montparnasse, a bustling train station located in the center of Paris. It’s 1931 and memories of The Great War are fresh, even as everyone tries to resume their normal lives.
Early on we meet Hugo’s father (Jude Law), a watchmaker and tinkerer. His mother has long since vanished, and Hugo clearly adores his happy, upbeat father. They tinker with an automaton that they’ve salvaged from a museum until one day when his father dies in a mysterious fire. Hugo is then adopted by alcoholic Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) and moves to the station. His job: keep the station clocks working.
Hugo is caught attempting to steal a small clockwork mouse by the gruff Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), who insists that the young urchin work to recompense him for goods previously stolen.
Yes, that Méliès, one of the pioneers of cinema and most famously the director of the groundbreaking 1902 silent film A Trip to the Moon.
The intertwining stories of Hugo’s experience at Gare Montparnasse, getting by on his own wits while outwitting the comical and tragic Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), his budding romance with perky Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) and his earnest passion for repairing the automaton in the hopes it hides a secret message from his father all combine to create an extraordinary — if occasionally long-winded — fantasy world and heart-warming film.
Hugo’s passion to rebuild his automaton is both literally and figuratively the heart of the story. Indeed, the 2/3 scale human-like clockwork figure can’t work until a heart-shaped key is inserted into the center of its chest, a key that Isabelle is unknowingly wearing, having borrowed it from her guardian, Jeanne (Helen McCrory), Méliès’ life-long companion and true love.
It is in Hugo’s earnest, heartfelt quest for meaning that the film operates on a deeper level. He has lost his parents to tragedy, and just as France is recovering from the horror of The Great War, he too is trying to understand his place in a world defined by the arrival and departure of steam engines and the simple predictability of clockwork and giant gears.
As he seeks understanding, the gears turn, the hands tick and he travels a road towards family, love and life itself.
I also have to offer a criticism: If you don’t love cinema, if you aren’t well-versed in the early history of movies, there are a number of sequences that verge on boring. For children taken to this film based on its “children’s story” marketing, these passages are going to cause the little ones to squirm uncomfortably, yawn and wonder when the “real film” is going to start again.
With that said, I loved Hugo. It’s one of the most delightful films I have seen in ages. Even the 3-D was well done and added to the magic of the film (a definite rarity), and the Parisian soundtrack by veteran composer Howard Shore perfectly fit the mood and underlying whimsy of this surprisingly profound and thoughtful film.