I recently had a conversation with a friend who moved to Israel ten years ago. I asked him why he made the move at the age of 50 when he was gainfully employed in a senior technology position with a well-established company. He told me that, in spite of the outward perception of his success, he saw the handwriting on the wall in terms of his professional life in America. Younger people were rising in the company who were more adept and knowledgeable, and he knew it was simply a matter of time before he was let go. That reality motivated him to move to Israel and reinvent himself here where he started a “quickie-lube” automobile service center, which is now thriving.
I thought about my friend as I watched Hugo, an engrossing, imaginative story of an innovative businessman, Georges Melies, who is left behind as the world changes and technology advances. Unlike my friend, he is unable to reconcile his creative past life with a future that is changing every day, and so he becomes depressed and sad over a fate of which he has no control.
The agent of his emotional redemption is Hugo Cabret, a 12-year-old boy orphaned when his widowed father dies in a museum fire. A bond between father and son is the movies. In particular, the imaginative films of Georges Melius, whom Hugo’s father adored, is the favorite of father and son.
After his father’s death, Hugo is taken in by his alcoholic uncle who maintains the clocks in the railroad station, and Hugo learns how to maintain and repair them. While managing all the timepieces, he tries to fix a broken automaton, a mechanical man, which his father bought many years ago. It is this project which animates Hugo, who senses that his father has left him a message which only the automaton can reveal. Desperate to keep his father’s memory alive, Hugo steals mechanical parts to repair the automaton, but he is eventually caught by a toy store owner named Georges Melius who makes and fixes toys. Their relationship is at first tense, but when Hugo discovers that the toy store owner is the same Georges Melius, the moviemaker and creative genius who was beloved by his father, he wants to repair not just the automaton but Georges Melius as well.
We learn that Georges was a master filmmaker, who introduced clever and original special effects into his silent movies. Unfortunately, the advent of World War I changed the entertainment landscape in France where the story takes place, and Georges is forced to sell his movies in order to survive financially. Hugo discovers that Georges actually created the automaton, which was the only surviving remnant of his creativity. Hugo, of course, possesses it and wants to return it to its creator. How he does that is the stuff of a magical movie, with exquisite art direction and cinematography which makes Hugo a contemporary masterpiece.
King Solomon tells us in Proverbs that “the righteous fall seven times and rise again.” The message to all men is never to despair after setbacks or tragedy. God is orchestrating things behind the scenes, and one can find meaning even in the most dire of circumstances. The proper response to adversity is to learn from it, not to give in to it. When Georges Melius finally has his emotional awakening, he acknowledges his debt to a brave young man “who saw a broken machine and, against all odds, fixed it. It was the kindest magical trick that ever I have seen.” The reference is both to fixing the automaton and to Hugo’s rekindling of Georges’s creative fire, enabling him to join the larger community of artists from which he had been detached for so many years.
Hugo reminds us to help those broken souls who need human connection, and to “fail forward” and learn from adversity rather than wallow in despair.