Hugo Cabret lives in a secret world. It's a dank world of gears and steam and coal and levers and shadowy passageways that few even know exist. And he lives there alone … except for the fact that he's actually never alone. That's because this young orphan's home is the most unlikely of places: deep in the heart of Paris' bustling train station in the 1930s.
It wasn't always that way, of course. Once upon a time, Hugo enjoyed the loving care of his attentive father, a clockmaker and museum curator. But when his dad is killed in an explosive accident, all the love and security the boy has ever known goes up in flames. Taken in and then quickly abandoned by his dissolute Uncle Claude (the caretaker of all the clocks in the depot), Hugo now tends to winding the station's clocks while peering longingly through their faces at the bustling world beyond.
It would be a hopeless existence but for one important legacy his father left behind—an impossibly intricate, robot-like automaton salvaged from a museum. Wind it up, put an ink pen in its hand, and it'll write … something. Hugo's convinced that the automaton might, somehow, give him a message from his father. A message of hope that would help him make sense of his solitary existence.
Except that the automaton is broken. So when he's not winding clocks and cribbing croissants to survive, Hugo steals toys from a shop in the train station and uses their gears to try to restore the automaton to "life."
Soon the old shop owner is onto him, though, catching him red-handed. And that's not the end of Hugo's troubles: A station inspector named Gustav is determined to sic his Doberman pinscher Maximilian on every thieving, parentless urchin he can sniff out, then ship them off to an orphanage.
But Hugo finds an ally in the shop owner's goddaughter, Isabelle, a wide-eyed, wonder-filled girl longing for an adventure like the ones she's read about her whole life. And as Hugo and Isabelle piece together the mystery of the broken automaton, they stumble into an adventure that will unlock a closely guarded secret … and bring renewed hope and meaning to more people than just Hugo.
Hugo revolves around overlapping themes related to the importance of friendship and family, purpose and imagination. When we first meet our young protagonist, he's clearly resourceful and resilient, driven by his desire to restore his father's automaton. But as Hugo secretly watches people in the station who are engaged in relationships—an old man courts an old woman with a particularly feisty dachshund, for instance—it's equally clear how desperately in need of relationship Hugo is, no matter how determined and self-reliant he may be.
Relationship does come to Hugo, showing up first in the form of Isabelle, who becomes his fast friend and partner in adventure. And their childish affection is both sweet and necessary to both of them. (They hold hands after a traumatic event, and Isabelle gives Hugo a quick kiss on the cheek.) Next in line are Isabelle's godparents, shop owner Papa Georges and his wife, Mama Jeanne. Papa Georges is a taciturn old man, but one with a spark of kindness buried below the surface. Instead of turning Hugo in after he catches him stealing, for instance, Papa Georges allows him to work at his shop to repay the debt.
Without giving away too much, Hugo's quest to restore his automaton increasingly dovetails with a plotline about why Papa Georges has become so bitter. And Hugo's efforts prove key to redeeming the older man's sense of purpose and dignity.
Speaking of purpose, Hugo longs for that elusive quality as well. He intuitively senses his purpose probably relates to fixing broking things ("Broken machines make me sad," he tells Isabelle). But he still wonders about his larger place in the world. He reasons that machines never have extra parts, that every part is necessary and purposeful. Extrapolating logically from that, he says, "I couldn't be an extra part. I have to be here for some reason." Though Hugo's logic never wanders explicitly into theological territory, the point he makes does beg important questions about why we're here and what one's individual purpose might be. It also begs the question of our relationship with God.
Hugo fondly reminisces about how much his father enjoyed taking him to movies; his dad strongly felt that movies could inspire imagination and bigger dreams. As Hugo progresses, it increasingly pays homage to the imagination of early moviemakers and the ways they sought to capture elaborate visual exploits and special effects on film. But beyond that very Hollywood-serving sentiment, it's also very clear here that good, gentle, engaged fathers are ultimately important to a child's healthy development.
Station inspector Gustav, for his part, is conscientious to the point of being cruel when it comes to delivering orphans to the orphanages. But there's more to his story: We finally learn that he himself was an orphan, and that his stint in an orphanage was what gave him a sense of purpose and direction in life.
We also watch as Gustav falls in love with a flower seller named Lisette and tries to work up the courage to talk with her. To do so he must overcome his self-consciousness about the partially crippling injury he sustained in World War I.
A crucifix is briefly visible in Papa Georges and Mama Jeanne's home. Hugo follows Papa Georges through rows of ominous-looking statues that appear to be hooded monks.
A montage of vintage Hollywood films contain images of mythological and fantastical creatures such as Greek gods, mermaids, fairies, dragons, etc. Similar images can be seen in a number of hand-drawn pictures that spill forth from Papa Georges' armoire. Brief passing reference is made to ghosts.
Gustav has two short conversations with a fellow police officer about the man's pregnant wife—specifically, who the father of the unborn child is. In one of those conversations, Gustav asks the man if he's had "relations" with his wife in the last year. The answer is no, and Gustav concludes that the pregnancy is "suspicious."
An awkward conversation between Gustav and Lisette involves him commenting on a cow's "perfectly formed udders" while looking longingly at her. And after getting a new mechanical leg brace, Gustav says suggestively to Lisette, "I'm now a fully functioning man, aren't I, dear?"
Costumes worn by women in the vintage films reveal a bit of cleavage.
Police find a dead man by the Seine. A fiery explosion erupts through a door, and we soon learn that it killed Hugo's father. Twice Hugo finds himself on a train track with a fast-approaching train bearing down on him. In one case the train derails, ripping through the crowded station as folks jump out of the way. It plunges out a window to the ground below.
Hugo leads Gustav and his trusty canine, Maximilian, on two raucous, disruptive chases through the station, pursuits that often involve people being shoved out of the way. Gustav's leg brace accidentally gets hitched to a train, dragging him along the ground with one leg in the air until he bangs unceremoniously into stacked luggage on the platform.
The old films contain mock violence, including warriors using spears to attack a huge, fire-breathing dragon prop. Several of the reels include pyrotechnics.
Crude or Profane Language
No profanities or vulgarities. Gustav calls Uncle Claude an "oaf" and a "bloated buffoon."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Uncle Claude is obviously a drunk, and we see him knocking back the contents of a flask. People drink wine in cafés and at a party. There are a handful of blink-and-you'll-miss-them shots of characters smoking.
Other Negative Elements
Hugo repeatedly steals food (croissants, milk) to sustain himself; the film depicts this habit more as a necessity for survival than as evidence of a deficient character. The boy also pilfers toys from Papa Georges, thefts driven by his desire to obtain gears from them to repair the automaton. (Eventually, of course, Papa Georges catches him.)
Isabelle lies to Gustav about Hugo's identity, saying he's a country cousin. When Hugo picks the lock of a theater's back door so he and Isabelle can sneak in and watch a movie, she says, "We could get into trouble." Hugo replies, "That's how you know it's an adventure." (The theater's proprietor soon notices them, saying, "How did you rats get in here?" before tossing them out and warning them not to come back.)
Martin Scorsese has directed more than 50 films to date, including some of the most critically acclaimed releases in Hollywood history. The American Film Institute's list of the Top 100 films of all time, in fact, includes no fewer than three of his movies (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas). In 2007, Scorsese took home a Best Director Oscar for The Departed, a film that also won Best Picture.
Astute film fans, however, will also note that the majority of Scorsese's efforts—including all of those listed above, as well as the relatively recent Shutter Island and Gangs of New York—have been rated R for violence, obscenities and nudity. Which means that while this famed director's efforts have often been critical darlings, they've been inaccessible to family audiences.
So what happens when a guy whose storytelling style is practically synonymous with gritty content decides to make a movie based on a popular children's story (Brian Selznick's 2007 book The Invention of Hugo Cabret)? Well. What happens is nothing short of mesmerizing.
Hugo is one of those rare films that works on practically every level … for practically every audience. Visually, Scorsese's first foray into 3-D filmmaking is a sumptuous masterpiece. His rendering of Paris, of Hugo's essentially subterranean environs and of his characters' expressions make this film a case study in cinematic excellence.
Longtime movie critic Roger Ebert writes, "Hugo is unlike any other film Martin Scorsese has ever made, and yet possibly the closest to his heart: a big-budget, family epic in 3-D, and in some ways, a mirror of his own life. We feel a great artist has been given command of the tools and resources he needs to make a movie about—movies."
Better yet, those tools and resources stand in the service of a story that's equal parts endearing and inspiring. Friendship and family, perseverance and hope all take center stage in this touching tale. It's delightfully sentimental stuff without ever feeling cloying.
I'll ask again, What happens when Martin Scorsese sets out to make something … completely different? Hugo feels like a throwback to many of the beloved films of yesteryear. And at the same time, it serves as a powerful reminder that there are filmmakers in Hollywood who have the capacity to tell a spellbinding story without indulging in R-rated excess or crassly capitulating to commercialism.
They just have to choose to do so.