The inner-workings of a massive clock fades to Paris, 1930, and at its center a massive train station. Young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) hides behind one of the station's many clock faces, and watches over the busy station's many travelers. The old toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley) frowns at passers-by as he tinkers with items behind the counter. The bookshop owner, Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee) opens his doors for business. Cafe owner Madame Emilie (Frances de la Tour) and newsstand owner Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths) exchange flirtatious glances over their morning coffee while Lisette (Emily Mortimer), the station's florist, arranges bouquets. Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), a severely strict policeman, patrols the station with his aggressive doberman. One of his most time consuming duties is catching and arresting orphans who wander the train station. His left leg is fitted with a rusty, ill-maintained leg brace. Lastly, Hugo spots a young girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) who frequents the old toy shop.
Hugo maintains the menagerie of clocks all around the train station, from the largest clock in the building's main tower, to the tiniest of clocks found in privates offices. The clocks are all connected by a massive series of tunnels and concealed passageways. He deftly evades Inspector Gustav's detection through his intimate knowledge of the station's air ducts. One morning Hugo watches from afar as the old toy shop owner fiddles with a toy mouse, which when wound up, travels a few inches and sputters to a stop. The old man falls asleep at the counter, snoring loudly. Hugo sneaks into the train station's main thoroughfare, approaches the toy shop, grabs the toy mouse but is intently caught by the awoken toy shop owner. The toy mouse falls from their hands and explodes into a dozen pieces upon hitting the ground. He accuses Hugo of being a thief and threatens to call the Inspector unless Hugo returns all that he has stolen. Hugo initially denies the accusations, but after a moment of hesitation, he reaches into his right pocket and produces a small folded up handkerchief. The old man opens the handkerchief revealing a pile of assorted metal gears, springs, and screws - all pilfered from his shop. He prods the boy to empty his other pocket, and after more convincing, Hugo reveals a small leather-bound notebook filled with hand-drawn mechanical diagrams, sketches and a flip book animation of a peculiar bald man turning to face the viewer. The old man demands to know where Hugo found the book and shouts for the Inspector. Hugo flees from Inspector Gustav and his patrol dog all through the train station, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Hugo manages to disappear into a concealed heating duct, frustrating Gustav and his dog. Hugo returns to his hidden room at the train station where he works on a curious robotic-looking figure, similar to that of the notebook's flip-book animation. He tries to repair the robot with various pilfered and stolen parts, but none fit.
That evening Hugo returns to the toy shop where he finds the old man closing up for the night. He asks that he return the notebook, but refuses to answer any questions about its author. The old man refuses to return the book, saying that he plans to burn it, and walks home in the cold; Hugo follows closely. The old man arrives home and walks inside, leaving Hugo to freeze out in the snow. Hugo spots the young girl he saw earlier at the train station, tosses a pebble at her bedroom window, and pleads that she come down. Curious, the young girl comes to the front door, introduces herself as Isabelle, and answers that her Godfather Georges, the old man, is in a horrible mood and that he and her Godmother Jeanne are arguing about the notebook at that moment. She says she will try and get Hugo his notebook. Satisfied, Hugo returns to the train station.
Hugo recalls his first memory of the toy robot. Hugo's father (Jude Law) is a museum curator at night and a clock builder/repairman during the day. One day he wandered across a peculiar robotic "Automaton" that was about to be thrown out of the museum, so he saved it from the dump and brought it home. He explains to Hugo that these Automatons were built for circuses, magic shows, and side shows. Some could sing, some could dance, and it would appear that this Automaton can write. However it is currently in very bad shape and is missing numerous hard-to-find parts including a heart-shaped key which would fit in it's back. Hugo and his father spend many months rebuilding the Automaton piece-by-piece, however one night, at the museum, Hugo's father perishes in a fire. Hugo's Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) drunkenly bursts into Hugo's home. He tactlessly tells Hugo that his father is dead, and as he loads his pockets with gold watches, he tells Hugo that he needs to come with him, and that his life's work will be maintaining the clocks at the train station.
The following morning Hugo watches as Inspector Gustav excitedly approaches Lisette, but moments before speaking to her, his rusty leg brace lets out a deafening screech, and locks his leg in place. Embarrassed, Gustav turns away from Lisette. Hugo is there when Georges arrives to open the toy shop; he demands the return of his notebook. Georges sighs, reaches into his jacket pocket, and withdraws a folded handkerchief, and passes it to Hugo. Hugo unravels the cloth and sees a pile of burnt ash. He cries and runs from the toy shop, only to be intercepted by Isabelle. Isabelle claims that Georges didn't actually burn the book; he only wanted to trick Hugo. Hugo returns to the toy shop to find Georges cradling the remains of the broken toy mouse Hugo broke. He passes the remains, and a small tool box to Hugo and tells him to repair it. Hugo expertly returns the mouse to full working order, causing it to roll across the counter, jump onto its rear legs and spin across the counter again. Georges is impressed, but still regards Hugo as a thief. He will give Hugo the opportunity to work off all that he has stolen from the toy shop and promises to eventually return the book to him. As he works Hugo regularly watches as Isabelle plays with her friends, something she is keenly aware of.
One day Isabelle steals Hugo away from his work, taking him to Monsieur Labisse's bookshop. Along the way the two are stopped by Inspector Gustav, who asks where the pair's parents are. Isabelle claims that her father works at the toy shop and that Hugo is her dullard cousin from the country on holiday. The two leave without a problem. Isabelle and Monsieur Labisse are great friends, and he allows her to borrow many books. Monsieur Labisse is happy to see Isabelle but carefully watches Hugo, as he is known to be a thief. Isabelle tells Hugo that her favorite books include David Copperfield and Les Miserables. Hugo reciprocates by saying that he likes books, but is a greater fan of movies. Growing up Hugo and his father would see movies all the time. Hugo speaks of his father's first movie experience, seeing "A Trip to the Moon" and feeling like he was watching his imagination unfold on screen. Isabelle responds that she's never seen a movie, at the behest of her godfather Georges and godmother Jeanne. Hugo takes Isabelle to a local movie theater, and using his lock-pick, he and Isabelle sneak in through the back door. They watch "Safety Last!" in which a silent film actor dangles from a clock many stories over moving traffic. The two are swiftly found out by the theater owner and kicked out.
As the day draws to an close Isabelle pleads with Hugo to show her where he lives. Hugo refuses, and leaves her in the middle of the train station where she is overtaken by a huge crowd of travelers and nearly trampled, until Hugo saves her. He notices a peculiar necklace worn around her neck - a heart-shaped key. Hugo takes her into the walls of the train station and to his room. Isabelle is enchanted by the Automaton and eagerly passes Hugo the key. Hugo plugs the key into the robot and turns it five times. Gears begin to spin and the appendages come to life. It begins jotting-down random letters and numbers on the sheet of paper beneath it - the final product makes no sense. Hugo loses his composure, crying hysterically. He had hoped that the machine would contain a message from his father, and not an incomprehensible mess of scribbles. Moments after stopping, the Automaton begins to move again, surprising both Isabelle and Hugo, revealing that it is not "writing" but "drawing." After a few minutes the automaton ceases to draw, revealing a completed facsimile of the moon from the film "A Trip to the Moon" with the signature of "Georges Méliès." Confused, Isabelle tells Hugo that Georges Méliès is the name of her Godfather, the owner of the toyshop.
Hugo and Isabelle return to her home at the end of the day to meet Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory), Georges' wife. Upon seeing Hugo, Jeanne is angry. She accuses Hugo of being a thief who drummed up many bad memories a few days earlier when Georges brought home the notebook. She asks Hugo to leave, but not before he reaches into his pocket and produces the Automaton's sketch. Jeanne is dumbstruck, and is about to tell Hugo to leave again when she hears Georges arriving home. She tells Hugo and Isabelle to hide in the next room over until Georges falls asleep, and then Hugo should leave. Hugo notices that Jeanne glanced at a cabinet opposite the main door when she shut them in, and theorizes that that must be where his notebook is being kept. He examines the cabinet and is surprised to find a concealed compartment in it near the ceiling. Isabelle lifts a rickety chair and stands atop it while she peels the compartment door open, revealing a small wooden box hidden within. She tugs the box out of its hiding place, however the old chair collapses under her feet causing her, and the box, to go tumbling to the floor. The box explodes into a mass of paper, sketches, and paintings, including a different sketch of the moon from "A Trip to the Moon." Answering the commotion, Georges and Jeanne scramble into the room. Georges is shocked at the number of drawings littering the floor. He picks up a handful of sketches and begins tearing them apart, to the shock of his wife, who tries to stop him. Hugo leaves, and returns to the train station.
The following morning Hugo watches from afar as another orphaned boy, of similar age to Hugo, is caught by Inspector Gustav as the boy looks for food in the discarded wrappers of a businessman's breakfast. Gustav hauls the kid up to his office, throws him in a cage, and phones the local police. Hugo watches as a paddy-wagon full of homeless orphans arrives to pick up the boy. Hugo returns inside the station where he collides with Monsieur Labisse, who is on his way to see his nephew, causing him to drop the books that he was carrying. Labisse gives Hugo one of the books, Robin Hood, and furthermore provides Hugo with information on another book he might be interested in. Hugo and Isabelle head to the local library, and find the precise location of the book that Labisse spoke of. Inside the book they find a chapter dedicated entirely to Georges Méliès: a deceased magician and pioneer of filmmaking who died during the Great War. The two are confused by the information they've run across and are startled by a man who appears behind them; he is interested in what they're doing. The two realize that the man behind them is René Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), the author of the book they're reading. Isabelle explains that Georges is her godfather and very much alive. René goes on to explain that Georges was one of the first men to make movies, and describes meeting him when he was a young boy. Georges was shooting a film in which he starred, directed, wrote, and designed. Georges went on to shoot over 500 movies, and is very important in the world of cinema. Isabelle invites René to meet Georges again.
That night Hugo dreams two dreams. In the first he is walking through the train station and sees Isabelle's heart-shaped key sitting on the tracks below. He leaps down onto the tracks to retrieve the key but is run over by an incoming train that rockets through the station and through the front of the building. In the second dream he slowly transforms into the Automaton, before awakening. In the morning Inspector Gustav approaches Lisette, but his nerves get the better of him. His leg seizes up on him, causing him to talk about the injury he sustained in the war before he awkwardly attempts to flee. Lisette stops him, saying that she lost a brother in the war, before she tucks a flower into his lapel. He blushes and returns to work. Soon thereafter Gustav gets a call from the police. Hugo's Uncle Claude has been found dead in the city, and likely died many months ago. Gustav wonders who has been maintaining the clocks in his absence. Elsewhere Monsieur Frick and Madame Emilie's courtship is continually foiled by Emilie's annoying dog.
Hugo, Isabelle, and René Tabard arrive at Georges and Jeanne's home, much to Jeanne's disappointment. She tells them all that Georges is feeling very sick and is not welcoming visitors. René apologizes profusely, telling her that he thought she was aware that he would be coming, and then complements her on her phenomenal acting. The kids look confused. Jeanne bashfully accepts the complement, and tells Isabelle that once upon a time she did a little acting. René brags that Jeanne was Georges' muse and starred in all five-hundred of his films. Jeanne sadly retorts that none of the films exist anymore, but is caught off guard when René produces a film reel. They set up the small hand-cranked projector in the foyer and watch "A Trip to the Moon," and are all surprised to see a young Jeanne act in the film. Georges appears in the back of the room, and shakes hands with the visibly awe-struck René. He explains the truth.
Georges and Jeanne were a traveling magician and assistant who went from fairground to fairground. At one fair they saw their first movie, "A Train Pulls into a Station" - a short film in which a steam powered train pulled into a station. This was the first moving picture any audience had ever seen, and the effect was so mesmerizing that people leapt from their seats and screamed as the train rolled past the camera. Georges attempted to purchase a motion picture camera from the company behind the movie, but they refused, saying that motion pictures were a fad. He and Jeanne started "Star Films" studios, and made hundreds of films, and that period of time was the highlight of their lives. Besides films Georges designed and built numerous props, including Automatons, for his shows. When the Great War came, people lost interest in his films, he lost most of his money, so he sold off the original prints and reels to shoe factories, which melted down the plastic and celluloid and turned them into heels for women's shoes. Any movie props that couldn't be recycled, he burnt, with the exception of a single automaton, which he donated to a museum. Sadly the museum caught fire and the automaton was lost. He took what little money he had left to open the toy shop in the train station, and chose to live a life of anonymity.
Hugo excitedly tells Georges to wait while he runs to the train station. At the train station Monsieur Frick arrives to Madame Emilie's table carrying a small dog similar to her own. He puts it with the other, and the two play. This allows Frick and Emilie to finally be together, uninterrupted. Hugo arrives and carefully evades Inspector Gustav by hiding behind a pile of boxes. Emilie and Frick's dogs sniff out Hugo and indirectly alert Gustav who captures Hugo, takes him to his office, and throws him into an orphan cage. Gustav turns away from Hugo as he phones the police to come collect him. Hugo sneakily takes his lock-pick, and breaks out of the cage and runs for an air-vent, which he hastily ducks into. Gustav and his dog chase him to the air vent and follow Hugo into the walls and tunnels of the train station. Gustav and his dog chase Hugo up to the top of the station's clock tower, and Hugo, left with no alternative, carefully sneaks through the face of the clock and dangles from one of its hands while Gustav searches for Hugo inside. After a few moments Gustav gives up his search and the two return to the train station while Hugo carefully makes his way back inside, and down to his room. Hugo grabs the automaton, wraps it in a blanket, and hurriedly makes his way through the hustle and bustle of the train station carrying the robot. Gustav appears, grabs Hugo by the arm and causes the automaton to fly through the air and land awkwardly on the track. A train approaches. Hugo grapples the automaton but is unable to lift it off the track. The train engineers spot Hugo on the track and frantically try to stop the train. At the very last second Gustav appears and lifts Hugo and the automaton up and out of the train's path. He angrily yells at the boy, and tells him that the men from the orphanage will arrive to collect him shortly. Hugo passionately begs for leniency from Gustav as a crowd begins to gather, including Lisette. Hugo pleads that he has one chance to make things right and he can't miss it and that Gustav must understand where he's coming from; Hugo then gestures to Gustav's crippled leg. Gustav feels remorse for Hugo, but is still bound by his duty as a policeman to turn in the orphan. Georges, Isabelle, and Jeanne arrive and Georges stops Gustav, boldly claiming that they are his family. Gustav lets Hugo go, and Hugo immediately shows Georges the automaton. He regrets that the robot is broken from the fall, but Georges dismisses his pleas.
René Tabard stands at the front of a large theater and its well-dressed audience. He speaks of Georges Méliès and calls him a pioneer of the film industry and speaks of scouring barns, basements, and attics wherein they've found over 80 of Méliès' 500 films. The stage-curtains part and Georges walks out to meet the audience. He speaks with great pride of his career and thanks Hugo for having the courage and tenacity to help Georges come to his senses.
A small after-party takes place at Georges and Jeanne's home. Attendees include Monsieur Frick and Madame Emilie on a date. Inspector Gustav shows off his new leg brace, which was designed by Hugo and hugs his date Lisette. Hugo happily takes in the atmosphere of his new family and smiles at Isabelle and Monsieur Labisse who stand across the room. Finally the automaton sits at a writing desk, staring into space.
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