This storybook kid is not exactly the perfect picture of good behavior. Hugo steals, lies, and doesn’t go to school. Also, he's not exactly dripping with friends.
But despite these less than savory qualities, we root for Hugo through and through, and that's because he's a victim of really sad circumstances, and none of this is really his fault.
The one thing this kid has going for him is that he's the kind of character who makes things happen. In his search for answers and family, he's daring, brave, and almost unstoppable.
Okay, okay, we admit it. The kid's a thief. And an unabashed one at that. Sure, this isn’t the most flattering side of Hugo, but it’s the first side of him that we see:
Nervously, he rubbed the notebook one last time, then cautiously lowered his hand around the windup toy he wanted. (1.1.7)
Since Uncle Claude abandoned him, he’s had to get by with stealing what he can to eat and survive in the train station:
Uncle Claude taught Hugo how to steal, which Hugo hated more than anything, but sometimes it was the only way to get something to eat. (1.5.42)
It’s obvious that Hugo doesn’t want to be a thief, but he doesn’t have much of a choice, does he? He’s just a little boy who’s stuck in a very scary adult world, and he has to do what he can to survive. He tries to avoid stealing when he can:
He preferred to pay for what he could with the coins that he found each week, and he tried not to steal anything he thought people needed. He took clothes from the lost and found and scavenged the garbage for day old bread. (1.6.16)
But he also steals some not-so necessary things, like the wind-up toy and even the magic book at the bookstore, which Etienne winds up buying for him. So what's up with that?
We think that even those thefts are pretty understandable. After all, Hugo's alone in the world, and that automaton is pretty much the only friend he has. And it's certainly the only connection he to his father that he has left. So stealing those toy parts, and Isabelle's key, means that he can keep that connection going.
And when he tries to steal that book, well, that's all about family, too. After all, he's been spending a lot of time with Papa Georges, and though the old man isn't exactly a doting grandpa figure, it's clear Hugo's curious about the guy. It's clear he cares.
Hugo has no parents, no friends, and no siblings. He doesn’t even have any acquaintances since he’s so busy trying not to get noticed. Let's face it: Hugo must be one lonely kid.
The upside of this is that Hugo learns how to take care of himself. That’s why we root for Hugo—he’s scrappy and independent, and he doesn’t let his admittedly bleak circumstances bring him down. In fact, he continues to work (taking care of all those clocks) and even teaches himself how to do what he does best: fix things.
When Hugo first picks up the automaton, he thinks it might be the solution to his utter aloneness: "If he fixed it, at least he wouldn’t be so completely alone" (1.5.54). And in a way, it is.
Sure, the automaton can't be a friend to Hugo. We mean, the thing doesn't even have a brain. But it's the automaton that brings him to Georges Méliès and Isabelle, who eventually become his misfit, ragtag, totally awesome family. After all they go through together, they take Hugo into their home.
They’re all alone in their own way: Méliès is isolated from his old life, Isabelle is an orphan, and Hugo is, too. But by the end, they have formed their own little family, and that's just what Hugo's been looking for this whole time.