Like probably a great many of you, I watched a Robin Williams movie over the weekend. Now, in fairness, I didn’t pick the movie; it was at a birthday party, and Hook was projected to keep us busy while the man of the hour prepared a slow-cooking curry. But considering how many of you were vocal about seeing reviews for older things here at TR, this would seem to offer a perfect opportunity.
To put it mildly, Hook is one of Williams’ more problematic movies, one that attempts to utilize his dramatic and comedic talents in a movie where the solution to everything appears to have been “throw money at it.” As middle-aged Peter Banning, he’s a grown-up, American Peter Pan who has forgotten his past, and must reconnect with his inner child when Captain Hook shows up to kidnap his children. I first saw Hook when it came out and liked it, then years later caught it on TV and hated it. In light of the sort of generous reappraisal we tend to give people after they die, how did I feel about it this time? Read on…
When Hook first came out, the scene where Peter discovers his old teddy bear struck a nerve for me – I lost my first teddy bear in a move when I was young, and will always miss that guy. I also loved Dustin Hoffman as Hook – he’s not remotely scary, but he’s campy as all hell, and you have to hand it to Williams for allowing a costar to get all the attention and the good laughs.
When I saw it on TV years later, all the sentimentality, epitomized by that goddamn song Peter’s kid sings for no reason, made me sick. I was also on a bit of an anti-Williams, anti-Spielberg kick at the time – both were/are tremendous talents with a tendency to wade way too deeply into the treacle.
But now I am a middle-aged guy, and my perspective is closer to Peter Banning’s…and by extension, Steven Spielberg’s. Where the original viewing built up the reveal of Banning becoming Pan, allowing Williams to finally cut loose from his buttoned-up dad role and be the funnyman, I now find his Banning for more appealing and interesting than his Pan. Like every movie dad, he’s demonized in the story for working too hard…which you see so often onscreen, I suspect, because directors working on location really do have to spend many days away from family. I felt his frustration when he was trying to put a deal together on the phone and nobody around him would just be quiet, and his fish-out-of-water antics in Neverland, completely in over his head and unable to believe his eyes, are well executed. It helps that Neverland is an actual real set on what must be a gigantic soundstage; mildly animated matte paintings make up the background.
Then he meets the Lost Boys, becomes Pan, and the movie basically falls apart.
We may as well start with the biggest missed opportunity that I’m surprised a skilled storyteller like Spielberg totally blew. Traditionally, in Peter Pan stage plays (as well as the PJ Hogan movie version), Mr. Darling and Captain Hook are played by the same actor, emphasizing how father figures can be seen as exaggerated villains in the eyes of a child. Hook ought to serve some sort of parallel purpose to Peter, now the dad in this…but he doesn’t. Though he sets himself up as a rival “cool dad” to Peter’s son, there’s no subtext. Hook ought perhaps to represent what Peter fears himself becoming…or the childhood trauma he’s tried to repress…or the specter of his own adopted father…or anything, really. When Captain Hook, during the climax, casually remarks that death is the only adventure left for him, you realize (if you’re paying attention) how horrifyingly twisted his master plan has been – he has lured Peter back to murder him, because he’s tired of life. That’s a theme worth exploring, but it goes no further.
And I’m sorry, fans – I know we’re all supposed to love Rufio, the punk-rock Lost Boys leader, but he’s a truly terrible character, which isn’t actor Dante Basco’s fault at all. Saddled with a bizarre backwards-slang dialect that nobody else in the movie has, and existing solely to die and up the stakes at the end because Captain Hook hasn’t been at all scary as a threat, he’s a plot convenience with a cool haircut. Worse, one of the Lost Boys at the movie’s end remarks on what a great game they’ve just played, completely oblivious to the impact of their leader having been run through with a sword.
It’s amusing to remember, but when Hook came out, reviewers actually mocked the supposed political correctness of Spielberg casting multi-ethnic Lost Boys. It’d be the opposite today, though people would probably still complain about the fact that Neverland has a brothel. (As with Hook wanting to die, there’s potential for a dark Neverland tale in which the place reflects the psyche of a middle-aged Pan, but this is not that.)
While the movie reflects Steven Spielberg’s longing to be a good dad, it doesn’t have any focus elsewhere, so the climactic battle – which essentially features homemade Nerf weapons – isn’t especially well shot, and the title character of Hook really isn’t examined much at all. There is also a real excess of Julia Roberts reaction shots – take an actual shot of scotch every time the movie cuts to her smiling at something – that feel almost contractually obliged.
And then there’s a real casual cruelty at the ending, which implies that Peter’s wife has been crying by the window for three days, thinking her husband and kids have been kidnapped and possibly murdered. This is all promptly laughed away when crazy old man Tootles gets a whiff of pixie dust and levitates, thus ensuring we take everything we just saw literally…which is fair enough, since figuratively there isn’t much to chew on.
In the end, Hook isn’t great or terrible, but it’s both – a film that has some wonderful moments, and some really awful ones (the baseball scene in Neverland is even more hide-under-the-table embarrassing than the one in Twilight). Like Howard the Duck, it’s a concept in need of better handling, which is shocking given the level of talent involved.