Hook (1991)

Director: Steven Spielberg

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By Roderick Heath

Hook was a film I never had any time for. Perhaps it’s a fitting irony that I’m much younger now than I was when the film came out. There was no way in hell my 12-year-old self wanted to see a Peter Pan movie, not in the season of Terminator 2. Since then, I’d neglected it because it came from the blandest phase of Steven Spielberg’s career, that space in between the flop Empire of the Sun (1987) and Schindler’s List (1993), also distinguished by two indifferent money spinners (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989, and Jurassic Park, 1993) and the now virtually forgotten, problematic but fitfully dazzling Always (1989), a period in which the director seemed to have lost his way both in style and substance. The lack of appreciation for Empire of the Sun, still his most unique drama, left the director stuck playing to juvenile crowds that no longer seemed to be his thing.

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Hook has its fans, and it surely made money, but it left me with extremely mixed feelings. Spielberg’s capacity to paint gorgeous fantasy imagery and sell his films emotionally prods this overproduced, underplotted contraption to dazzle in fits and starts. The hook, so to speak, is actually quite smart— a middle-aged, overworked, distracted man who’s completely forgotten that he’s the epitome of youth, imagination, and joie de vivre. It also features an early variant on the powerful motif of a boy or man spying on his own family, in which another has taken his place, an image that reappears in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Catch Me If You Can (2002). But as a tale and a piece of filmmaking, Hook remains conflicted and violently uneven.

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Robin Williams, visibly transforming from the appealing comic actor of the 1980s to the smarmy, overexposed star of the 1990s, plays Peter Banning, a flabby, overprotective corporate lawyer whose neuroses include a fear of heights and flying. He’s the kind of dad who’s so busy he doesn’t show up for his son Jack’s (Charlie Korsmo) Little League games. Peter, his wife Moira (Caroline Goodall), Jack, and daughter Maggie (Amber Scott) fly to London,to visit Moira’s 90-year-old grandmother, Wendy Darling (Maggie Smith, in heavy make-up). Wendy, the “inspiration” for the girl in J. M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan, had dedicated her life to helping orphans; Peter, one of her former foundlings, has helped fund a grandiose institution named after her. However, one of his business projects is going south, driving him to yell at his kids and alienate everyone.

When Jack and Maggie disappear from the house, a taunting note, pinned with a sword and signed by Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman), demands that Peter return to Never-Neverland and face his vengeance. Of course, the police (represented, scarily, by Phil Collins) think it’s a prank related to Wendy’s famous “literary character,” but Wendy tells Peter the truth: he really is Peter Pan. Having visited Wendy (played in flashbacks by Spielberg’s goddaughter Gwyneth Paltrow) for decades after their first adventure, he fell in love with Moira, and, when he kissed her, became mortal and forgot all about his past life. Peter anxiously writes Wendy off as batty, but is soon visited in his bedroom by Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts). She literally drags him to Neverland to confront Hook. Once there, Peter proves to be a wretched disappointment for Hook and his kids when he can’t even climb a mast to fetch them from the net they’re held in. Hook is inclined to kill him offhand, but Tinkerbell convinces the Captain to let her get Peter back into shape for a real confrontation.

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There’s a lot of room for humour, adventure, and even satire in such a set-up, and, broadly, Hook belongs in a contemporary subgenre with films like The Princess Bride (1987), Shrek (2001), and Ever After (1999) as a smart-mouthed, revisionist twist on fantasy material. And yet it never quite gets over being a concept, a vehicle, a scheme, to become a real movie. There are a number of reasons for its failure to wow, but put a lot of down to a disjointed screenplay by James V. Hart and Malia Scotch Marmo. Hart did a similarly lumpy hack job on another revisionist film of the period, Francis Coppola’s terrible Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). The lack of strong dialogue means that the film often has an air of the provisional, such as when Hook’s underling Smee (Bob Hoskins) gorges on food and skips around like an actor trying to unfreeze an icy audience waiting for the actual jokes.

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Hook is split into three disparate personalities: a cheeky take on a dusty old tale, a heartfelt tribute to the power of the fantastic and the legacy of J. M. Barrie, and an oversized effort to beat the audience into submission with production values and make them buy toys for Christmas. Chiefly it lacks zip. Raiders of the Lost Ark has zip. Hook ambles clumsily along like Long John Silver. Much like his closest literary forebear, Dickens, the fear of loss is partner to Spielberg’s sentiment, and this quality gives Hook some emotional imperative. He offers some marvellous moments, most notably when Tinkerbell first kidnaps Peter, carrying him bundled in a blanket across a fairytale London, her pixie dust accidentally raining on a kissing couple and causing them to levitate in front of Big Ben, before heading for the second star on the right, and the night sky splitting open with the rays of a seaborne dawn. It’s a sequence that serves as a fair reminder of Spielberg’s capacity to wield special effects in service of wonderment. A scene in which Peter falls in the ocean and is saved from drowning by a trio of mermaids who kiss him to push air into his lungs, has a delicately adolescent erotic tone. And the true climax, in which Peter delves into his memories and finally extracts the birth of his son as the moment that allows him to fly again, is suitably joyous. Similarly affecting, if in a different fashion, is the image of Peter, having desperately raced to escape his workplace and make it to Jack’s game, arriving at a completely empty stadium. Spielberg utilises the same variety of crane shot here as for the momentous revelations in Close Encounters, but only to offer desolation. The London scenes, and the evocative references to the original tale, fortunately flow with appropriately misty magic.

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And yet Spielberg the director is only confident in spurts. The film is curiously cramped, revolving around its two ornate, but tiresomely huge sets—Pirate Cove and the Lost Boys’ lair. Perhaps this reflects the project’s partial origin in a musical John Williams tried to put together with Leslie Bricusse—a stagy air is ever present. The opening in America lacks the concision of workaday life and domestic crisis that made Close Encounters of the Third Kind work, or the mordantly overdrawn quality of John Patrick Shanley’s thematically and visually similar Joe Versus The Volcano (1987). Musically bridging some of the early scenes, Williams slaps on a dreadful piece of pseudo-pop that only encourages plugging one’s ears.

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Once the film reaches Neverland, the film’s split ambitions become more problematic. In what ought to be a land out of time, we get a mob of Lost Boys trying far too hard to be MTV-fit hellions, zipping about in their badass lair that suggests a G-rated Paranoid Park. When Peter falls into their midst, the sheer volume and choppiness of the editing suggest a complete loss of certainty on Spielberg’s part as to what film he’s making. The Lost Boys go into battle wielding gadgets that are obviously meant to expand the franchising revenue in a climax that’s unfairly twee and nonviolent: Lost Boys take out their enemies with jets of raw egg and tomato sauce, and the subtly named Thud Butt (Raushan Hammond), a fat, black Lost Boy, rolls himself up and cannonballs his enemies. Yeesh. The final duel of Hook and Peter sports some startlingly flatfooted fencing.

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One of the contradictions of Spielberg’s career through the 70s and 80s was that although he surely made many films that kids loved, he was never really a maker of children’s films; even E.T. is a fairly rowdy movie in its scares, threats, and generational hostility. Hook reveals just how much he misses going for the throat, making faces melt and staging action scenes of real verve. Perhaps a larger problem is that Peter Pan strikes me as far too thin to play around with in such a fashion. It’s not a solidly conceived fantasy world, like Tolkien’s Middle Earth or the realm in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials . It’s nothing more than the figment of a child’s imagination, nor is it intended to be, and so trying to enlarge on such a template—making Hook a weirdly existential villain or having Tinkerbell tortured by an unrequited love for Peter—is both amusing and troubling. I start asking stupid questions like, whose ships do these pirates attack? Is Tinkerbell so hard up for other pixies to hang around with?

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Perhaps this makes Hook sound worse than it is. In fact, it’s entertaining, and works best as a kind of a character study as it describes Peter’s journey from man to boy to back again, finding delight at last in watching his family come together. There’s such a barrage of throwaway gags, most of them offered by Hook’s chorus of dimwit pirates, that some hit home. Some fair performances help enormously, especially from Korsmo and Hoffman as Hook attempts the ultimate revenge on Peter—winning the affection of his son. Hoffman’s disarmingly droll Hook is less hammy than expected— a shade more restrained indeed than anyone in Pirates of the Caribbean. Hoffman’s Hook sports bad teeth, a pencil moustache, a ratty head of thinning hair concealed by his black wig, and a Terry-Thomas accent. Williams may have been obvious casting at the time, but it’s not a choice that’s aged well; an actor of greater subtlety might have given the film less noise and more vitality. Goodall, perpetually underused, is luminous in all her scenes. I actually liked Roberts’ Razzie-winning Tinkerbell. If any actress ought to stick to playing miniature sprites of no corporeal quality, it’s her. l

  • Rick spoke:
    11th/08/2009 to 3:21 pm

    He’s the kind of dad who’s so busy he doesn’t show up for his son Jack’s (Charlie Korsmo) Little League games.
    Why does the percentage of these fathers seem so much higher in the movies than in real life?
    I think you’ve just about nailed this movie: when I have seen it, I get the same mixed vibe. It’s entertaining, but over-the-top, and I can’t stand the lost boys in their, as you aptly put it, “MTV” personas.
    However, it is entertaining, largely due to Hoffman and, I submit, Hoskins. But don’t tell anyone I said so — they’re trashing it over on Facebook even as I speak.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/08/2009 to 3:24 pm

    I kind of like it, too. It’s entertaining, but the fight sequence is as tedious as described.

  • DJ Heinlein spoke:
    11th/08/2009 to 6:15 pm

    Hook, hook! Where’s the Hook? Hook, hook! Where’s the Hook?
    I freaking LOVE this picture. I watched it on VHS so many damn times that I wore out the tape until it wouldn’t play without the VCR tracking just go ballistic on me. Ha! Those were some good times.

  • Rod spoke:
    11th/08/2009 to 9:50 pm

    What people say on Facebook is worth less than zero.
    It’s an unfair comparison, probably, but I was watching Raiders of the Lost Ark again last night, and noting what a little miracle of a film it is – it tells a story that’s actually quite intricate and offers vivid characterizations whilst not slowing for a moment. Hook just doesn’t have half as much idea where it’s going.
    Rick, I took the scenes of Peter’s child neglect to be pretty well as much a riff on the mythos of the distracted dad as the rest of it is a riff on Peter Pan. But Hoskins actually brought me a lot pain here – not because I thought he was bad, but because he struck me precisely as I said, like an actor who senses the material is weak and is hamming it up.
    DJ: It made me wanna watch The Goonies again. Seriously, like, now.

  • Adam Zanzie spoke:
    20th/08/2009 to 12:57 am

    This is a late comment, I know, but as Spielberg’s #1 fan I just want to say, bravo! This is the best piece I’ve read on “Hook” anywhere. The flaws you point out in the film are all, indeed, problematic. That choreography between the pirates and the Lost Boys at the end was pretty awful. (One thing you liked more than I did- Julia Roberts, whom I thought was miscast as Tinkerbell).
    Oddly enough, your review made me want to watch “Hook” again. Haven’t seen it in years. As you say, it’s one of Spielberg’s weakest, but nevertheless it’s an exceptional entertainment. Good work, Roderick!

  • Rod spoke:
    20th/08/2009 to 11:33 pm

    Hi Adam.
    As a big Spielberg fan myself (certainly, it seems, more than the mob of pseudo-intellectual dittoheads I’ve been putting up with lately – I mean that with love, guys), I found Hook summed up a lot of the man’s great gifts and great weaknesses in an interesting package.
    It’s interesting that AI seems to be picking up a lot of postmortem kudos lately. I liked it, but I’m not about to declare it one of his best.

  • oxford_p spoke:
    27th/01/2011 to 4:01 pm

    when i saw this film as a 7-year-old child it was positively magical. i thought it was an incredible, beautiful, wild adventure and even at that age i found it poignant. i watched it over and over and still cried when granny wendy says, “oh, peter, you’ve become a pirate.” i’m 26 now and i recently watched it again. i have to say, i did cringe a little bit at some of the cheesy parts “you are the pan” (haha, oh jesus) and rufio saying “i wish i’d had a father like you” or whatever when he’s dying… i mean, yes, spielberg didn’t have to go that all-out cheesy, but really, i see this as a kids’ movie. and when i watch it, i can’t separate it from the joy and wonder it made me feel as a child. maybe it could have been done better, but it was still a great film in my humble opinion, and i can still get enjoyment out of it now even despite some of the cheese.

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