A Clockwork Christmas: ‘Hugo’ Ain’t Your Average Xmas Flick

Our purpose is more than maintaining the machinery of our lives. Christmas compels us to remember that we need real, human connections. We look at how Hugo offers that Christmas feeling.
Hugo Article
By  · Published on December 6th, 2017

Welcome to Alt-Christmas, our week of articles dedicated to movies that we like to watch this time of year, especially if we’re not entirely in the spirit of the season.

Those tiny, blinky lights are up on the neighbors’ houses. Trees are being decorated. Holiday offices parties are being announced. Break out the ugly sweaters. It’s Christmas time. I wouldn’t say I get a bit maudlin during the holidays. Drunk, yes. Not tearful, though. Definitely sentimental. What’s a positive word for drunk and sentimental? Happy. Right! Truth is, I spend quite a bit of time thinking during the holidays. I’ve written before about how the holidays are about finding a renewed faith in humanity. For me, Christmas is about the joy of strengthening our bonds with our friends and family. It’s about renewing our connection to our community, whatever that means to us.

It’s easy to lose ourselves in the day-to-day maintenance of our lives. Existence is exhausting. Due to that, we tend to drift apart. We forget that loving feeling. It’s gone, gone, gone. Woah. Sorry, Christmas flashback. The Righteous Brothers karaoke brings back some happy Christmastime memories. We lose track of finding joy in our circle of friends and family. It’s important to have a holiday dedicated to reminding us to celebrate that connection.

What the heck has all this Christmas talk got to do with Hugo? It is one of only a few films that by its very design puts me in just the right headspace where I can bask in the feeling of connectedness. It’s the only film that does that through one my very favorite metaphors: machinery.

Living in the Machine

Hugo Cabret is an orphan. His father, a clockmaker and museum caretaker, died in an explosion. Hugo’s uncle adopted him and brought him on as his apprentice. I should say, the uncle adopted Hugo as his employee. They lived at the Gare Montparnasse rail station in Paris, France, inside the massive train station clockworks. Living inside this machinery, the Uncle trained Hugo to keep all the clocks functioning. Once trained, Hugo’s uncle retreated back into his bottle and disappeared. And so we find Hugo Cabret, independent and living in the machine.

The train station is a vibrant space, full of life and characters. The dastardly station inspector with the soft heart. The sweet florist. The bookstore proprietor. A toy store owner. A toy store owner’s goddaughter, as well. He does not dare to interact. He spies on them, as though they are all characters in his own little live-action soap opera.

I feel everything about the small romances and forged connections we watch grow and change. They are presented in a whimsical sort of visual poetry. I hate to be all wordy about it, but that’s how it truly hits me. It’s such simple glimpses of trivial everyday life, but it is all so full of potential energy and connection. Kinetic life, the potential for fulfillment.

Hugo doesn’t get paid for his work, but the locale offers him the ability to hustle some calories here and there. Which is fine for Hugo. When he isn’t treating the train station like a vivid fairytale picture book, he’s pursuing the goal he’s compelled to complete. Before his death, Hugo’s father found an old and broken automaton. It became their project. After his father’s death, Hugo brought the automaton with him to the train station. With every spare minute, he works to repair it. The project to repair this thing consumes him. A beautiful thing, a wonderful memory, but still just a thing. He believes he has all the parts, but he appears to be missing an essential key. What will it do when activated? He doesn’t know.

We work so hard to build our lives. We start families. Or, perhaps we pursue careers or education. Maybe we do all of the above. We take our baby steps to success. There’s always life around us. Especially as we create these complex machines that help us run our lives. I’m blessed with kids, a mortgage, a partner, and a couple of jobs to help provide for all that. Eventually, the maintenance of these things can become so great that it requires all of your focus. Despite thoroughly appreciating how blessed I am to have all this, it is a challenge to get through all the hurdles of the day. Sometimes I feel consumed by the machine as I spy on all the life around me. It’s scary. It’s terrifyingly easy to fall into a just-make-it-to-Friday-evening rhythm.

Winding the Clock

I recognize the metaphor is a bit on the nose. Regardless, Christmas is about winding clocks. Our machines don’t run endlessly. They need to be nurtured. Our lives become devoid of purpose without zest, passion, or human connection.

“Maybe that’s why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do. Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose, it’s like you’re broken.” – Hugo Cabret

Georges, the toy store owner, catches Hugo stealing his mechanical creations. Hugo has been breaking them down into base parts to rebuild his automaton. At first, Georges plans to turn Hugo over to the Station Inspector. After some intervention from his goddaughter, Isabelle, Georges agrees to allow Hugo to work off his debt.

Hugo builds a friendship with Isabelle. She introduces him to the wonder of books, and he introduces her to the thrill of movies. Eventually, he trusts her enough to show her the automaton. In a bit of perfectly delightful, only-in-a-movie script work, she immediately recognizes the keyhole because she has that very key on her necklace. When it’s activated, the automaton draws a scene from Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon.

This image sends them to the library to research Georges Melies, who they realize is Papa Georges the toy store owner. They meet Rene, who both works at the Film Academy and has studied Méliès’ work intently. Shocked to learn he’s alive, Rene tells them the story of George Méliès.

The story is devastating. Not because it’s so terribly sad, but precisely because it is not. The story is glorious. Méliès was a magician and showman. He told amazing stories as he mined the potential of film. He achieved great things, to include making wonderful films with his wife. However, after World War I, people lost interest in what they saw as frivolities, and the dream faded.

It’s a challenging cycle to overcome. As we lose vibrancy, we retreat from the world. We lose our human connections, which are what ultimately gives everything purpose. We need those to find passion and zest for life. It’s a challenging harmony, to exist, fulfilled, with purpose. The slightest cog out of place can throw off the whole machine. I said I knew the metaphor was on the nose. It’s still accurate.

We build our lives to elevate us to our next step. They are built on and with human connections. When Isabelle sees the automaton, she asks what it will do when activated. Hugo confesses he thinks it will send him a message from his dad. Which is impossible. But, that project was built on the connection with his father and was an expression of their love for each other and their passion for clockwork. The automaton was always just a thing. What made it special was the connection.

The same is true for Georges. At the end of the movie, he’s finally recognized by the film academy for his contribution to their world. However, that isn’t what made him a happier man. Adulation isn’t what saved Papa Georges. It was a connection.

We need connections in our lives. And, lord knows, that isn’t easy. I dread social situations. Too much anxiety, I’m always certain I don’t belong. Despite that, when I make connections and brave those waters, I get so much out of it. Meeting people and building relationships have gotten me every good thing I have in my life, professionally and personally.

In my mind, this is what the holidays are about. Stop. Take a minute away from going through the motions of maintaining these machines. Remind yourself that the humans in your life are the point. Hugo is the embodiment of that idea. Despite not being set during the holidays, it’s very much in the spirit of Christmas.

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Writer for Film School Rejects. He currently lives in Virginia, where he is very proud of his three kids, wife, and projector. Co-Dork on the In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast.