Revisiting the Reviled — ‘Hook’ is the Rarest of Films: A Total Dud from Steven Spielberg

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Every week with Revisiting the Reviled, Sean looks at a film that was meant to appeal to geeks and failed, often miserably.

Steven Spielberg isn’t a director that will appear in Revisiting the Reviled all too often, though he did make an appearance with The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The reason is simple: the man is a master filmmaker, capable of using the cinematic form to craft the highest caliber of movies. Nobody else can make such crowd-pleasing adventure films or genuinely moving dramas. He walks the line between critical and commercial appeal without a single peer. Even if one were to compile a list of Spielberg misfires, there will still be those who defend the film for a variety of reasons. 1941 has its defenders. So does The Terminal. But one Spielberg film is generally disliked, and for good reason. If anyone is out to defend Hook, Spielberg’s 1991 take on Peter Pan, it’s likely coming from a place of nostalgia and not critical thinking.

Hook aimed to tell the story of a grown-up Peter Pan (Robin Williams), who through the commitments of adulthood had forgotten that he was once the boy who wouldn’t grow up. Peter Banning, as he’s known, is a go-go capitalist in the mid-afternoon following Reagan’s Morning in America. He talks mergers and acquisitions on his cell phone (quite the fancy piece of technology in 1991) while generally ignoring his paternal obligations to his two small children Jack (Charlie Korsmo) and Maggie (Amber Scott). But that’s all gonna change on his vacation to London, where Peter will be reunited with Wendy (Maggie Smith), the kindly old lady who took in peter when he was a young orphan. At night, however, Jack and Maggie have been kidnapped by the nefarious Captain James Hook (Dustin Hoffman), who wants to continue his long dormant feud with Peter Pan. After a visit from Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts, whose personal turmoil on set earned her the nickname Tinkerhell, which has followed her throughout her career), Peter travels to Never Never Land unaware of his personal history as the flying child known as Peter Pan. Before Peter can take on Hook, he must first remember who he was while trying to earn the trust of The Lost Boys, a group of orphans whom Peter used to lead.

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If there’s one truly unforgivable sin about Hook, it’s the unbearable length of the film. Spielberg has always been a smart filmmaker in regards to efficiency. His films rarely feel too long or contain numerous moments that belong on the cutting room floor. Hook is one of those rare examples, as it seemingly takes forever to get to Never Never Land, and then it takes longer for Peter to realize his destiny, a destiny that is way too obvious for everyone in the theater. It’s not like there’s going to be a Peter Pan movie where he’s slain by Captain Hook, and there’s no reason to take nearly two and a half hours to reach that conclusion.

Peter’s journey of re-self-discovery is a labored process, where the once-thriving capitalist must learn that money isn’t everything and that growing up is a burden in and of itself. There to help Peter learn this moral are the Lost Boys, including their new leader Rufio (Dante Basco) and the wide-eyed and inelegantly named Thud Butt (Raushan Hammond). Each of these characters and their distinctive traits only exist to help Peter get better in touch with his lost essence of childhood. Rufio is the harsh and braggadocious skeptic, whose trust must be earned through fighting. When he is slain by Hook, his death gives Peter the extra will to fight the evil one-handed villain. Meanwhile, Thud Butt (I shudder when typing that name) is much more accepting and tries to connect Peter with buried memories that might help him rediscover himself. Of course, the little scamp with the awful name is able to take down enemies by transforming into a stuffed animal ball and rolling over his opponents. The character is a prepubescent form of fat shaming in a movie of considerable bloat itself.

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Fatherhood and flawed father figures are a trademark of Spielberg’s filmography, and he lays it on thicker than he ever has in Hook. Spielberg and screenwriters James V. Hart and Malia Scotch Marmo (working on a story by Hart and Nick Castle) give the audience a litany of reasons that Peter is an inadequate father. He yells at his children and breaks promises to attend Little League games, all in the name of good business. As I said before, these moments are handled with appalling narrative efficiency from a master filmmaker. As Peter’s young daughter is steadfast in refusing to believe that her father is anything but great, Jack is having a crisis of faith concerning his father. Captain Hook now sees an opening to hurt his opponent even more by taking Jack under his hook and supplant Peter as Jack’s father figure. This subplot leads to one of the most baffling inclusions in Hook – a baseball game involving pirates and Peter Pan’s son. Do these pirates from another dimension already know the rules of baseball? Did Jack have a copy of the sheet music for “Take Me Out the Ballgame”? Who thought that this would be a good fit in a movie about Peter Pan?

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All is not bleak in Hook. The film does have a wonderful production design of massive practical sets, though the practical effects of Peter Pan flying are really underwhelming. The makeup effects, too, are quite marvelous, as Dustin Hoffman is virtually unrecognizable as Captain Hook. But these glossy elements are only window dressing on a rather trite story told poorly.

Hook was a box office hit, but it failed to meet expectations considering its bloated budget and star power in front and behind the camera. Following Hook and Always, it briefly seemed that Spielberg had lost his magic touch as neither were critically received well nor did they smash box office records. But Spielberg would squash those doubts with what might be the greatest year any single filmmaker has ever had in 1993 with Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park proving that the master wouldn’t be down too long. Other iteration of Peter Pan have come and gone, and will continue to come and go, but none will match the crushing disappointment that is Hook. It’s an unimaginative slog about rekindling imagination, a hypocritical ham-fisted exercise featuring an all-star cast and an all-time great filmmaker. It should’ve been something special, but it’s not. And if you can’t admit that Hook is hokum, you likely haven’t grown up.

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