Hugo is an orphan in early 20th century Paris. He lives in a train station, inside the clocks where his uncle worked before his death. Nobody really realized Hugo is there, but he is present all the time, winding the clocks.
His antagonist is the station inspector, who routinely patrols the station and catches kids for stealing or other minor offenses.
Hugo knows something about clockwork, since he lived with his father, a clockmaker, before his untimley death in a museum fire.
Hugo pilfers some of his parts from a toy booth in the train station, run by an old man named Georges Méliès.He needs the parts to repair an automaton left behind behind by his father. It was found in a museum, but never fully repaired. Hugo wants to desperately repair it, believing that it may contain a message from his father, and also so he doesn’t feel so alone.
Trouble is, Hugo must steal food to survive, so he is kind of a menace to the train station. The inspector catches up with him and threatens to send him to the orphanage. He even has a small cage he uses to lock up children in when they are caught committing violations.
Hugo is also caught by the toy shop owner, trying to steal a mechanical wind-up mouse. Georges feigns sleep and then catches Hugo by the wrist. He forces Hugo to empy all his pockets, revealing a bunch of gears, springs, but most importantly, a notebook containing diagrams of an automaton, and animation in the form of flip pages.
Georges is enraged by the discovery of the notebook, and demands to know if Hugo drew the pictures. Hugo never answers (and actually the book was created by his father, who drew the pages when he was attempting to repair the automaton).
The toy shop owner keeps the book and shouts “Thief!” which draws the attention of the station inspector. A chase ensues, but Hugo gets away.
Later, Hugo follows Georges to his house, demanding to get his notebook back. Hugo is stuck outside after Georges enters his house, but attracts the attention of George’s goddaughter, Isabelle. She comes outside and Hugo explains that he must get his notebook back, that Georges plans on burning it. Isabelle promises she will try to help.
Georges gives Hugo supposedly what is the ashes of the notebook, but Isabelle tells him that her Georges actually still has the notebook. When confronting Georges about it, Hugo is told that he must earn the notebook back by working in the toy shop. Hugo has a talent for fixing things, so there is much he could do around the shop.
Isabelle and Hugo go to silent films. Hugo is attached to the movies since he used to go there with his father, and as such it is a good memory for him.
Isabelle has a heart shaped key which happens to go to the automaton. They go into the clock tower and use it on the automaton, which activates and draws a picture. They take the picture to Georges’ home and show it to his wife Jeanne. Jeanne makes the kids hide in the bedroom when Georges comes home, and they get into a secret compartment inside an armoir only to discover dozen of drawings similar to the one the automaton drew. Georges discovers them and gets very angry they have revealed the drawings. Georges had buried the past and couldn’t relive it without great agony.
Through a bookstore owner Isabelle knows, they discover who her godfather really is though a film history book. They are interupted by the author of the book, Rene Tabard, who is an expert and admirer of Georges Méliès. Rene believes the old filmaker died during the Great War, but he is only partially correct.
It turns out Georges Méliès is actually an early film pioneer, who lost everything due to the advent of WWI. Following the war, no one was in the mood for his films and he had to liquidate or burn most everything left of his original, unique movie studio.
Rene, Hugo, and Isabelle all go to the Méliès house and speak with Jeanne. Jeanne meets Rene and is touched by his level of fandom. Rene also recognizes that Jeanne appeared in all of Georges films. Rene has brought the only surviving copy of Voyage to the Moon, and they all watch it together. Georges is awoken, and after a breakthrough, decides to tell the entire story of what happened to his film studio.
In the end, Georges is recognized for his early pioneering work in film and the Film Soceity that Rene belongs to manages to recover 80 reels of Méliès’ work, presumably with his assistance.
I really thought this film was a happy coincidence for viewing while taking this course. Georges Méliès was of course, a real life pioneer in film. Also, the Lumiere brothers were mentioned in the film, and even a clip of their early train film was shown. The entire story seemed to pay homage to the early film pioneers, which is what we covered in the first week of class. The cinematography used, especially in the wide angle shots of Paris and the train station were really beautiful. The director’s use of colors and lighting were noticeably outstanding.