In 1931, 12-year-old Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in Paris with his father (Jude Law), a kind but widowed clockmaker who also works part-time at a museum. One day, his father finds a broken automaton, a mechanical man designed to write with a pen, at the museum, and Hugo and he try to repair it, his father documenting the automaton in a notebook. When his father is killed by a fire at the museum, Hugo is forced to live with his resentful, alcoholic uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), and made to learn how to maintain the clocks at the railway station of Gare Montparnasse. When Claude goes missing for several days, Hugo continues to maintain the clocks, fearing that he would be sent away as an orphan by the vindictive Station Inspector Gustave (Sacha Baron Cohen) if Claude's absence is discovered. Hugo attempts to repair the automaton with stolen parts, believing it contains a message from his father, but the machine still requires a heart-shaped key that his father could not find.
Hugo is caught when stealing from the toy store owner Georges (Ben Kingsley), who looks through his father's notebook and threatens to destroy it. Hugo encounters Georges' goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), who offers to help get the notebook back. Hugo learns Georges has forbidden Isabelle from going to the cinema, and introduces the medium to her as his father had done for him. As their friendship grows, he shows her the automaton, and is astonished when Isabelle inadvertently reveals she wears the key as a necklace given to her by Georges. When started, the machine draws out a scene that Hugo recognizes from his father's description of the film A Trip to the Moon. Isabelle identifies the signature, that of a "Georges Méliès", as her godfather. She sneaks Hugo into her home, where they find a hidden cache of more imaginative drawings of Méliès, but are caught by Georges, who banishes Hugo from his home.
Hugo and Isabelle go to the Film Academy Library and find a book about the history of cinema that praises Méliès' contributions. They meet the book's author, René Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), a film expert who is surprised to hear that Méliès might still be alive, as he had disappeared after World War I along with nearly all copies of his films. Excited at the chance to meet him, René agrees to meet Isabelle and Hugo at Georges' home to show his copy of A Trip to the Moon, hoping it will invigorate Georges. On the scheduled night, Georges' wife Jeanne (Helen McCrory) tries to turn them away, but René compliments Jeanne as Jeanne d'Alcy, an actress in many of Méliès' films, and she allows them to continue. As the film plays, Georges wakes up at the sight, and Jeanne finally convinces him to cherish his accomplishments rather than regret his lost dream. Georges recounts that as a stage magician, he had been fascinated by motion pictures, and used the medium to create imaginative works through his Star Film Company, but was forced into bankruptcy following the war, closing his studio and selling his films to be turned into raw materials. He laments that even an automaton he made that he donated to a museum was lost. Hugo recognizes this is the same automaton he has, and races to the station to retrieve it. He is caught by Gustave, who has learned that Claude's body was found some time ago, and threatens to take Hugo to the orphanage. Georges arrives and tells Gustave that he will now see to Hugo, adopting him as his son.
Some time later, Georges is named a professor at the Film Academy, and is paid tribute through a showcase of his films recovered by René. Hugo joins in with his new family as they celebrate at the apartment, where the guests include a mellower Gustave who is clearly in love with Lisette (Emily Mortimer) from the patisserie. As the movie ends, Isabelle starts to write down Hugo's story.
Michael Pitt, Martin Scorsese, and Brian Selznick have cameo roles.
GK Films acquired the screen rights to The Invention of Hugo Cabret shortly after the book was published in 2007. Initially, Chris Wedge was signed in to direct the adaptation and John Logan was contracted to write the screenplay. The film was initially titled Hugo Cabret. Several actors were hired, including Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Helen McCrory. Jude Law, Ray Winstone, Christopher Lee, Frances de la Tour, and Richard Griffiths later joined the project. Hugo was originally budgeted at $100 million, but ran over with a final budget between $156 million and $170 million. In February 2012, Graham King summed up his experience of producing Hugo: "Let's just say that it hasn't been an easy few months for me—there's been a lot of Ambien involved".
Production began in London on June 29, 2010; the first shooting location was at the Shepperton Studios. The Nene Valley Railway near Peterborough also lent their original Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits rolling stock to the studio.
In August 2010, production moved to Paris for two weeks. Locations included the Sainte-Geneviève Library, the Sorbonne (where a lecture hall was converted into a 1930s cinema hall) in the 5th arrondissement, and the Théâtre de l'Athénée and its surrounding area in the 9th. High school Lycée Louis-le-Grand served as the film's base of operations in Paris; its cafeteria served 700 meals a day for the cast and crew.
The film's soundtrack includes an Oscar-nominated original score composed by Howard Shore, and also makes prominent use of the Danse macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns and Gnossienne No. 1 by Erik Satie.
The film was theatrically released on November 23, 2011 by Paramount Pictures, premiered at the NYFF on October 10, 2011 and was released on DVD and Blu-ray on February 28, 2012 by Paramount Home Entertainment.
Hugo earned $15.4 million over its Thanksgiving weekend debut. It went on to earn US$73,864,507 domestically and $111,905,653 overseas, for a worldwide gross of $185,770,160. Despite praise from critics, Hugo was cited as one of the year's notable box-office flops. Its perceived failure was due to competition with Disney's The Muppets and Summit's Breaking Dawn Part 1. The film was estimated to have had a net loss of $100 million. Producer Graham King said that the film's box-office results were painful. "There's no finger-pointing—I'm the producer and I take the responsibility," he said. "Budget-wise, there just wasn't enough prep time and no one really realized how complicated doing a 3D film was going to be. I went through three line-producers because no one knew exactly what was going on. Do I still think it's a masterpiece that will be talked about in 20 years? Yes. But once the schedule started getting out of whack, things just spiraled and spiraled and that's when the avalanche began."
The film currently holds a 94% "Certified Fresh" rating on aggregate review site Rotten Tomatoes based on 206 reviews, with an average score of 8.3/10. The site's main consensus reads, "Hugo is an extravagant, elegant fantasy with an innocence lacking in many modern kids' movies, and one that emanates an unabashed love for the magic of cinema." Metacritic gave the film an average score of 83 out of 100, based on 41 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four out of four stars, saying "Hugo is unlike any other film Martin Scorsese has ever made, and yet possibly the closest to his heart: a big-budget, family epic in 3-D, and in some ways, a mirror of his own life. We feel a great artist has been given command of the tools and resources he needs to make a movie about—movies." Peter Rainer of The Christian Science Monitor gave it a "B+" grade and termed it as "an odd mixture: a deeply personal impersonal movie" and concluded that "Hugo is a mixed bag but one well worth rummaging through." Christy Lemire said that it had an "abundant love of the power of film; being a hardcore cinephile (like Scorsese) might add a layer of enjoyment, but it certainly isn't a prerequisite for walking in the door" besides being "slightly repetitive and overlong". Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune rated it three stars and described it as "rich and stimulating even when it wanders" explaining "every locale in Scorsese's vision of 1931 Paris looks and feels like another planet. The filmmaker embraces storybook artifice as wholeheartedly as he relays the tale's lessons in the importance of film preservation." Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal said that "visually Hugo is a marvel, but dramatically it's a clockwork lemon".
Hugo was selected for the Royal Film Performance 2011 with a screening at the Odeon, Leicester Square, in London on 28 November 2011 in the presence of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall in support of the Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund. Richard Corliss of Time named it one of the Top 10 Best Movies of 2011, saying, "Scorsese's love poem, rendered gorgeously in 3-D, restores both the reputation of an early pioneer and the glory of movie history—the birth of a popular art form given new life through a master's application of the coolest new techniques". James Cameron called Hugo "a masterpiece" and that the film had the best use of 3D he had seen, surpassing even his own acclaimed films.
The film appeared on the following critics' lists of the top-ten films of 2011: