Hugo is loosely based on Brian Selznick's novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Not a great deal is known about Georges Méliès, but the film does a fairly accurate job at portraying (perhaps) the more essential elements of his life. Given the severely limited technological innovation of cinema during his life, his surviving films provide an amazing legacy of cinematic artistry and abundant imagination.
Hugo is really more about Georges Méliès (played beautifully by Ben Kingsley) than about Hugo -- a young, abandoned boy who makes his home inside a giant clock at a Paris train station. For nearly half the film the viewer will assume the main story line is about Hugo, an automaton left by his father after a tragic accident, and re-building the automaton to gain some last wish/instruction/farewell from his father.
Without much hint of it, the plot turns out to be tremendously larger than the one imagined. During his exploits Hugo chances upon a film collector who is well-versed in the works of Georges Méliès. Through the collector's assistance by owning the only known surviving film of Georges Méliès, Hugo attempts to "fix' Méliès by re-introducing him to his work. Initially, the effort does not work out as hoped/planned.
Eventually, we are introduced to the mastery in this production. At some point the collector has been able to amass some 60 films of the artist's 500 creations. Georges Méliès himself introduces his work, and we are able to eyeball glimpses of his dream-like film captures.
In watching the film I felt Scorsese's boundless enthusiasm for the film making process, for the history of the process, and how these precious glimpses into the past must be safeguarded at all costs. Scorsese is right that we have an obligation to store/restore films that are degenerating out of neglect. And I think this is the strong, underlying theme of Scorsese's "Hugo."
This is not to say that the film is mere window dressing -- by no means. Scorsese neatly wraps his message in the highly entertaining, eye-boggling exploits of the abandoned boy "Hugo" who has multiple adventures (and mishaps), which finally pay dividends by "fixing" Georges Méliès who is a crushed soul for having lost all of his artistic endeavors -- that is until Hugo (and assistants) are able to re-ignite a spark in the old man's existence.
The film is not really comparable to any other Scorsese film. It's a long way off from "Taxi Driver", Raging Bull', "The King of Comedy," or any other flick. I regard this movie as one of personal, heart-felt significance to Scorsese.
Most importantly, it is a whopping good family movie to rent -- even if you care nothing about the preceding background material.