Once in a while, a film comes along that defies simple explanation. The story proves complex, the characters unexpectedly nuanced, and the entire narrative experience is beyond anything you expect. Hugo is just such a movie, a story that succeeds as a children's fable in the spirit of childhood fantasies like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and City of Ember, and simultaneously offers a surprisingly deep and profound exploration of love, family and what it means to be human.
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.
How Hugo became an orphan is a major story element and at one point 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 his father dies in a mysterious fire. Hugo is then adopted by his 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, unhappy Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), who takes Hugo's notebook, insisting that the young urchin work for Méliès to recompense him for the goods previously stolen. Méliès? Yes, that Méliès, one of the pioneers of cinema and most famously the director of the ground-breaking 1902 silent film Le voyage dans la lune.
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 delightfully 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. Highly recommended.