Hook (1991)

Steven Spielberg’s Hook has arrived on Superbit DVD with little fanfare. It was one of the first Spielberg movies on DVD back when few of his certifiable classics were yet available, and now it re-appears in Sony’s Superbit format, with enhanced picture and sound. The packaging remains devoid of extra features, in line with the perception of Hook as also-ran Spielberg at best, a would-be blockbuster that no one likes at worst.

It’s true that Hook displays a less sophisticated, less wizardly Spielberg. Absent is the virtuoso command of Schindler’s List (1993), Jurassic Park (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), A.I. (2001), Minority Report (2002), or, for that matter, Catch Me If You Can (2002). But Hook fits comfortably in another mode of Spielberg’s work, including some of the above-mentioned films: it’s underrated.

No, Hook is not nearly as bad as its reputation suggests. It’s thoroughly watchable, often amusing, fitfully entertaining. I loved it when I was 11, and I rather like it now, too. Watching it again on DVD, it’s puzzling to think that in 1991, it was considered the peak of Spielberg/Hollywood hubris.

What’s most puzzling about the film itself is its title, and its stance as a re-imagining of the Peter Pan story. The focus of the film is not actually on Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman), but on the grown-up Peter Banning (Robin Williams); Banning’s children are kidnapped by Hook, and he must return to Neverland and re-learn his Pannish ways to rescue them. Hook himself is on the sidelines for most of the film, plotting to win the affections of Peter’s son Jack (Charlie Korsmo, the thinking person’s Macaulay Culkin). The film is really just a reiteration of the Pan story with mild tweaks; the Banning children in jeopardy instead of the Darlings, and Pan has to re-learn how to fly.

Disappointment, then, is understandable for anyone expecting something more meditative than a spirited, sometimes mawkish adventure film. But in a way, it makes sense. Unlike Tim Burton, a frequent director of fantasy who seems drawn to pre-existing characters (Batman, Ichabod Crane, a planet full of apes), Spielberg’s adaptations tend to add character to popular but disposable novels (Jaws [1975], Jurassic Park), or build on established but somewhat less familiar sources (most of his recent output). Peter Pan is a more iconic pop character than anything Spielberg has dealt with before or since, and you can feel him struggling with the balance between iconography and revision. There’s a lack of confidence here; parts of Hook feel so hastily Spielbergian, so saturated with an overbearing John Williams score, so eager for uplift to counter the story’s darker tones, that they somehow feel less like Spielberg than ever. The dark fairy tale hinted at in the film’s early, London sections (particularly the unseen kidnapping of the children, and the parents’ discovery of it) is more fully realized in the audience-polarizing A.I., or even the beloved, family-safe E.T. (1982).

So there is something of a missed opportunity in Hook, but much of what remains is quite charming. While the film opens with an anthology of clichéd but-daddy-you-promised scenes (chronicling the many disappointments inflicted upon the Banning children), it picks up as soon as Maggie Smith, as the aged Wendy Darling, first refers, in whispered tones, to Banning as “boy.” The combination of sweetness and mystery in Smith’s performance is entrancing; you can almost feel a magical chill in the faux-London air.

It’s the actors who carry the day throughout. Williams (who starred in The Fisher King [1991] the same year) can be very good in the right fantasy role, maybe because it gives him an outlet for the madness below his surface while simultaneously keeping any overacting in check. First-billed Dustin Hoffman has less to do, but he and Williams go a long way toward injecting some wit into the proceedings. During their climactic sword fight, Pan observes, “I remember you being a lot bigger.” “To a 10-year-old, I’m huge,” Hook answers.

Other good scenes result from Hook’s play for the affection of Pan’s son, giving lessons on the rottenness of parents and the joys of piracy. It’s the film’s most intriguing idea: a father’s nightmare of a substitute parental figure who’s not only evil, but doesn’t ever miss a baseball game.

The screenplay also has interesting, if obvious, ideas about Tinkerbell’s affections for Peter Pan, but this, too, happens on the side. It’s tempting to blame the casting of Julia Roberts as Tink, but she’s more endearing than usual here. She made this movie when she was still relatively new to the business, and re-watching it now, she maintains a youthful energy here; Hook catches her before the rom-com routine set in.

If Tinkerbell and Hook are given too little to do, then what’s on-screen the test of the time? The answer is a gaggle of lost boys, the result of what appears to be, admittedly, a notable mistake on Spielberg’s part. The lost boys of Hook are cutesy, interchangeable, and, since about a week after the movie’s premiere, dated. Here is where a true re-imagining in darker tones would have been most beneficial. It’s not clear whether they are the “original” lost boys; they seem to remember Peter Pan, but they also seem like children of the ’80s and ’90s, skateboards and slang intact. Shouldn’t decades worth of lost boys subtly evoke different time periods? Instead, we’re left with a mob of mallrat-looking kids yelling “Bangarang!” at every opportunity.

It’s the lost boy sections where Hook is at its flabbiest, with overlong scenes of chasing and mayhem (and lots of that “Bangarang!”). Spielberg’s focus is hazy, but he still pulls off some nice scenes. When Peter finally finds his happy thought and flies, it’s thrilling in that familiar Spielbergian way, because of its briefly strong, simple emphasis on Williams and the story. There are pleasures like that throughout Hook, and the Superbit DVD gives its overflowing (if sometimes fake-looking) images extra color and vibrancy.

This isn’t one of Spielberg’s classics. The protracted denouement is like a clumsy flipside to everything he managed to pull off so effortlessly in E.T.‘s tear-jerking finale. But if this is indeed the worst movie he’s made since 1991, that speaks more to the quality of his work than anything else (I also have a lot of affection for another one of his derided fun machines, The Lost World [1997]). What probably, secretly bothers the Spielberg-bashers about Hook is that the director they derided as childish, broad, and base would dare to make… a children’s film. Twelve years later, that is how Hook plays, not as a fumbling play for an enormous crowd-pleaser, not as the product of a director losing his way, but as a movie primarily for children, with childlike lessons and simplicity. Bangarang indeed.