Steven Spielberg’s Hook has never been adored by critics and the director himself has reservations about his performance. But it enchanted me as a kid and still does today…
Critics don’t like the film, audiences are divided by it, and Spielberg himself rates it as one of his worst, but Hook enchanted me when I first saw it as an 8-year-old, and it still does today. The film acts as a sequel to J. M. Barrie’s most famous novel Peter Pan, updating the story to a contemporary 1990s where a grown-up Pan has enjoyed the excesses of American big business to create a cushy, affluent lifestyle for himself and his young family. In growing up (the very thing legend said he would never do), he has forgotten how to fly, his time in Neverland, and his experiences with the Lost Boys, Tinkerbell the fairy and dastardly Captain Hook. His concerns are now primarily focused on running a successful corporate law firm while juggling the demands of fatherhood.
His work life has strained his relationship with his children, particularly his son who resents the fact his father is more interested in what happens at the office than what happens at home. Yet, while Peter (now going by the name Peter Banning) has lost all memory of his adventures, Captain Hook, his nemesis, has not. So when Peter brings his family to London for an event to mark the opening of Wendy Darling’s orphanage expansion, Hook travels from the world of fantasy to kidnap Peter’s children in order to coax him back to Neverland for one final showdown.
It is a wonderful concept and the perfect stage for director Steven Spielberg as it deals with themes that the Jaws director generally excels in. Principally, it lets Spielberg jump back into the shoes of a child, to see the world as they do, their innocence allowing the world of imagination and fantasy to fly free and unhindered. He can also examine the fractured relationship between father and son, the difficult balance between providing for a family and having time to spend with them.
The idea behind Peter Pan growing old also appeals to Spielberg as it allows him to comment on an idea he first considered in masterpiece Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Crucially, it concerns our loss of innocence, our loss of imagination, as the years tick by. With adulthood becomes a realisation that the world is round, that death is inevitable, that fear is far more frightening when it concerns a human being and a gun than a werewolf and a full moon. When possibility seemed endless, when rainbows had pots of gold at their undiscovered feet, when the ability to fly was possible with one happy thought, that was the time, in childhood, when imagination ran loose and the world was a far different, if equally, frightening place. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary, a family man and blue-collar worker, knew that aliens existed while everyone else didn’t. In effect, he regressed back to the wonderment he felt in childhood to support his growing infatuation with little green men. In Hook, similarly, Peter Banning must remember what it is like to be a child, to believe in the make-believe; to imagine, for one second, that the world might not be round, that it may have an end you could fall off. And to rediscover that happy thought to make him fly.
Spielberg has said he is happy with the film’s first quarter, prior to Peter being dragged off to Neverland by Tinkerbell, and I tend to agree with his assessment. The shots of snowy London at Christmastime are wonderful, while Maggie Smith’s Wendy (Peter Pan’s former love and the woman who set him up with a family) is the warmhearted connective tissue between the real and the unreal. It’s a luscious, lovingly designed introduction, that concludes with the genuinely unnerving, and unseen kidnapping of Peter’s children by Hook, and the entrance of Julia Robert’s Tinkerbell who tries to convince him he’s the real Peter Pan. There’s some neat effects too, especially the oversized sets for Tinkerbell’s close-ups.
Things unravel a bit when we get to Neverland (or, more to the point, the Neverland set). The thing is: it looks like a sound stage. If Captain Hook’s Jolly Roger set sail you’d know within ten feet it would have a Truman Show moment, its bow undoubtedly penetrating a plasterboard sky. Unlike Jurassic Park, which Spielberg released only two years later, we are not completely immersed in this world because it looks artificial. It is a criticism the film can’t escape from, and something Spielberg has highlighted himself when criticising his own work on the film. However, I still find things to love about it. While it looks like something you’d find at a theme park off International Drive in Orlando, it reminds me just how much I love the creativity of filmmakers, particularly set designers. That their work is so obvious is both off-putting and alluring because it feels like something you can reach out and touch but in the safe surroundings of a movie set. It’s old fashioned like the small black bricks they used to call “mobile phones” but it shows, very clearly, the attention to detail lavished upon the world of Neverland. Now, when filmmakers rely more heavily on green screens and computers, I find it hard to criticise the model makers, painters, carpenters and other hands-on creative types who obviously spent months putting their hearts and souls into this physical construction.
The film also benefits from a terrific Dustin Hoffman who chews the scenery as Captain Hook. His ear-wax-oiled handlebar moustache frames the aging face of a pirate whose final foe has eluded him for decades. Hoffman is loud and rambunctious, larger-than-life and darkly comic in his contempt for Peter Pan. Rightfully, it is his name for which the film draws its title, as he steals the show. Does that then suggest Robin Williams at Peter Pan is poor, given that ultimately the story is about him? Not really, but I do grapple with whether or not he is the right man for the job. Williams is at his best when, similarly to Hoffman’s Hook, he is allowed to erupt above and beyond the material. Yet, the character of Peter Banning holds Williams back, and he is ultimately constrained by the material. Indeed, the film gets some characters spot-on – Hook and Tinkerbell are two stand outs, while the Lost Boys and Peter feel undernourished. That might be down to the fact James V. Hart’s screenplay was rewritten in part by Malia Scotch Marmo and Carrie Fisher who were employed to concentrate on the characters of Hook and Tinkerbell respectively.
But there is enough in Hook to make me return to it. The scene in which Peter must make-believe a vast banquet sits before him is especially fun, as is its colourful design, while Peter’s eventual re-emergence as the high-flying leader of the Lost Boys warms the heart. True, Hook is far from the director’s best work but even lukewarm Spielberg produces fleeting reminders why I love his movies. I was enchanted by the film in 1991, and despite the flaws I see in it now, it still enchants today.