Papa Georges sure seems like your typical grumpy old guy at the beginning, doesn’t he? When we first meet him, he's a French Elmer Fudd:
The old man grunted and with a push he finally let go of Hugo’s arm. “Leave me alone, then! Stay away from me and my toy booth!” (1.1.32)
We half expect him to scream "Get off my lawn!" next.
But he turns out to be a lot more than your typical curmudgeon next door. Beneath his gruff exterior, Papa Georges is hiding some deep scars, and some deep tenderness.
The Secret History of Georges Méliès, Cinemagician
It's when the kids discover his old drawings that Papa Georges becomes truly unhinged for the first time:
“HA!” he cried. “How could this be mine? I am not an artist! I am nothing! I’m a penniless merchant, a prisoner! A shell! A windup toy!” (2.2.16)
Um, insecure much, buddy? Méliès obviously has some issues with his past. He used to be a renowned filmmaker, and now he's just a guy who runs a toyshop. We think he just might feel like he has failed himself. So what happened?
As he tells us, things started to go downhill for him right around World War I. He lost his filmmaking mojo, and his star faded. A lot. So much, in fact, that everyone thought the guy was dead. Yep, dead.
So he's been separated from his life's work and passion for quite a while. And when you add to that his grief over the death of Isabelle's parents, who were his good friends, well then it's no wonder this guy's a bit grumpy. That grumpiness is really just thinly veiled sadness. Maybe he's so grouchy because he's keeping it all bottled up.
Despite all his grump and gruff, Georges is also a really loving guy, and pretty fatherly, too. He and Mama Jeanne seem to get along well enough, and we can't forget that he took in Isabelle when she had no one left.
He even seems to be fond of Hugo, despite his best efforts to the contrary. This exchange between Hugo and Isabelle says it all:
“It’s the toy I was stealing when your godfather caught me. I broke it, and he made me fix it. I don’t know why he kept it.”
“He must like you,” Isabelle said. “In his dresser at home he has all the drawings I made him when I was little.” (2.6.16-17)
Sure, Georges acts like he hates Hugo, but he keeps the mechanical mouse that he fixed. In the same way that he loves Isabelle—which he demonstrates by quietly putting away the things that she’s created—he is also proud of Hugo even though he doesn’t say it outright. After all, Hugo displays much of the same creativity and handiness that Georges displayed in his heyday, making all those automatons and movies.
When push comes to shove, Papa Georges understands Hugo in a way that no other adult but his father did—he knows what it’s like to love magic, machines and film so much. It only makes sense that Georges Méliès is the person to fill that gap in Hugo’s life, and to take him in as family.
The best part is, Hugo returns the favor. If it weren't for the kid, Georges may never have reconnected with his movie-making past. He would have kept on living a lie, deprived of the joy and magic that movies can bring. But with Hugo's help, he can embrace his own history and look forward to a new future.