Oh, Hugo. He’s the kind of scrappy, smart kid that adults are constantly chasing after while they stomp around all Elmer Fudd-like, calling him a “wascally wabbit.” He is a twelve-year-old boy who lives in a train station.
Wait. Why? Prepare yourself for a bummer: our guy's an orphan, and his uncle, who's supposed to be taking care of him, is an unpredictable drunkard who just so happens to have disappeared. So Hugo runs the clocks in the station, and spends his days avoiding the Station Inspector (who is quite the unpleasant character).
But when he gets caught stealing a toy mechanical mouse to use in his attempt to repair this mysterious machine—an automaton—that he’s trying to fix, everything starts to get a little bit messier.
The old man who catches him is named Georges Méliès, and he owns the toy booth. He has a goddaughter named Isabelle, who tries to help Hugo out, even though her uncle is more than a little peeved at the kid. So peeved, in fact, that he takes Hugo's precious notebook, which contains all the notes on how to fix that automaton of his. Hugo agrees to work at the old man's toy booth for a while if the old man might (just might) give back his notebook.
And so begins Hugo's first job, and a friendship, too. He and Isabelle start to hang out a lot, and he meets her friend Etienne. All seems to be going well enough, until George storms into the toy booth in a towering temper and accuses Hugo of sneaking into his house to steal back the notebook. Not cool dude.
Of course, Hugo immediately knows that Isabelle did it. She's a curious little thing. So when he goes to hug Isabelle goodbye, he snatches away her necklace, which he’s noticed looks strikingly like the keyhole in the back of the automaton’s body—a keyhole he's always wondered about. He goes off to find the automaton, with Isabelle hot on his heels. She bursts on the scene and demands her key back.
But then something extraordinary happens.
Hugo sticks Isabelle's key into the back of the automaton, and the little mechanical man immediately begins to draw a picture. Of what, you ask? Of a scene from A Trip to the Moon, one of Hugo’s dad’s favorite films.
They are even more surprised, though, when the automaton signs a name at the end: Georges Méliès.
Hugo follows Isabelle back to her apartment, where they confront Mama Jeanne about the drawing. She shoos them into the bedroom, telling them that Hugo needs to sneak out after Papa Georges falls asleep.
But the kids won't be satisfied with that plan. So they do some major snooping and find a bunch of drawings by Georges. Of course Isabelle chooses this particular moment to turn into a giant klutz. She falls of a chair and makes a huge ruckus, prompting Georges to bust in all hot and bothered about something. Mama Jeanne sends him to bed, telling the kids that he's running a fever and is very, very upset. Uh oh.
Isabelle and Hugo decide to keep the toy booth running in order to buy the medicine for Georges to get better. In the meantime, inspired by his snooping, Hugo goes to investigate at the Film Academy and finds out that Georges Méliès was a very important filmmaker—and that the world thinks he’s dead. Dun dun dun.
He gives the scoop to Etienne, and Etienne tells his teacher, Rene Tabard. Without consulting anyone first, Hugo invites them over to meet Georges, which spells ten kinds of trouble. When they all show up at the apartment, hoping to learn all about Georges's past, Mama Jeanne lets them in but tells them they cannot meet Georges because he wants to put his past behind him.
But Monsieur Tabard ain't havin' that. He tells a story about how Georges inspired him when he was a little boy and instilled in him the love of film. He also says that they brought one of Georges’s movies, which Mama Jeanne agrees to let them watch quickly.
Unfortunately, when he hears the sound of the projector, Georges comes out, grabs the projector, and locks himself in his room. The others bust in, and Georges tells them all about his moviemaking past.
After he’s finished telling his tale, he asks Hugo if he’ll go back to the train station and bring him the automaton. Of course, Hugo agrees, but along the way he gets some shocking news—his uncle is dead, and has been for quite some time.
The news startles Hugo and he drops a bottle of milk that he’s stealing, and soon the booth keepers and the dreaded Station Inspector are chasing after him. In all the commotion, he falls onto the tracks, and a train is headed his way fast. Just when he thinks he's facing certain death, a hand reaches down and grabs him—it's Georges. And he's wearing a magician's cape.
Okay. Now fast-forward six months. We catch up with Hugo, who's living with Georges Méliès and his family. He’s back in school and the whole family is going to an event hosted by the Film Academy that’s supposed to celebrate Georges Méliès's works and life. They go to the theater and watch some beautiful, amazing, and most of all, magical movies together.