Hook

Hook ★★★½

HOOK: THE DEATH OF NOSTALGIA
All over the Internet people always speak snarkily about Hook as one of Spielberg’s worst. I’m first to admit that my 6-year-old self was right in the target audience when it came out (I even had a Happy Meal-gained Rufio bathtub toy which I adored), so I might have an unreasonably rosy view of it, but I never understood the hate. I watched the film regularly enough through high school and seen bits and pieces on TV recently and still did not see a damn thing wrong with it. When the disdainful comments about it being too twee, juvenile, and unengaging came out, my go-to line was, “What? Does Hiyako Miyazaki have a monopoly on whimsy or something?”
So, then I rewatched it recently to more accurately gauge my “love” for it. And as it turns out, I don’t know if I can quite defend it against those remarks. Apparently those “bits and pieces on TV” allowed me to fill in the rest of the movie from memory, but as a whole I was disappointed at the strange, emotional distance of about 80% of the film. Not to say it's a total failure. The things that worked for some audiences back then were even sharper as I watched it with a more critical eye. In the parlance of Nathan Rabin's "My World of Flops", Hook is a “Fiasco” at worst.
The story begins with the cinematically too-busy Peter Banning (Robin Williams trapped in the most over-the-top approximation of yuppie “business” this side of Kids in the Hall) who can’t make his son’s (Charlie Korsmo) baseball games. Not sure why this was always a big deal in kid’s movies. My parents didn't make all of my sporting events because they were fucking busy! It was even a running joke that neither of my parents were ever at a soccer game where I scored a goal. If you’re worried about people watching you play sports than you’re doing it wrong. But I digress. Amid a few characterization shortcuts for Peter (“Don’t play near open windows”, “Will everybody just shut up?! I’m on the phone call of my life.”), the family packs up and goes to London to visit Granny Wendy (Maggie Smith) who is getting an orphan’s hospital dedicated to her. Hints are dropped that she is a minor celebrity due to being the “Wendy” that the Peter Pan character was named after. This is a fun little quirk for the family until shit gets real when the Bannings’ children are kidnapped and a ransom note is found, signed by none other than “Captain Hook” (famously played by Dustin Hoffman). Peter Banning is eventually found by Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) and taken to Neverland to fight evil, rescue his kids, and learn to be carefree again.
My initial background with Pan before watching this movie was purely the Mary Martin stage show that my family had taped off of TV sometime in the 80’s. So now that I have a more in-depth knowledge of the book and other adaptations, I was kind of shocked at how this more closely mirrors the intention of Barrie’s work than any other incarnation I’d ever seen.

”Bad form!"
But before I get to the positives… let me concede a few things. Despite the nearly 2 ½ hour running time (!!), the characters don’t really mesh in their roles or with each other. This is saved by some surprisingly strong performances, which are able to add nuance to a shaky script. But not much can save undercooked tropes like when Spielberg shoehorns in a “father/son” pocketwatch gift that isn’t properly afforded any emotional value (literally one hurried scene that comes out of left field) or the scattershot introduction to the nearly nameless Lost Boys who just personify the worst of early 90’s skateboarding “’Tude”. While there is an interesting distance to the characters to make way for stylized frivolity, the inconsistency is jarring to see now that I’m an adult. Not only does Robin Williams waffle between humorlessness and a playful energy, but also the danger of the film is regularly undercut by silliness. This would be okay for a pure children’s film (to a point), but it serves to really pull back on what should be really emotional moments and cheapen the moments that actually do bring some pathos.

“What would the world be like without Captain Hook?”
Why would they change the title of “Peter Pan” to make it so that the villain is the eponymous character? It must be purposeful. The film isn’t exactly a subversion from his point of view (Wicked, Maleficient) or a vehicle created to particularly highlight his menace and/or mystery (The Day of the Jackal, Zodiac, most horror films). The answer, I think, is because the entire film attempts to isolate what Hook represents ideologically and how those themes affect the other characters. Much like in Barrie’s books, he fears the passage of time (the clocks) and hates the Lost Boys for their perpetual youth. Hoffman does a superb job of portraying a resigned disillusionment when he sees the lame, adult Peter Pan. “Kill ‘em! Kill ‘em all,” he says, practically in tears. Now that Pan isn’t the carefree, elfish brigand he’s been fighting his whole life… Hook doesn’t know what to do. If Pan has already succumbed to Hook's most feared enemy (the passage of time), then what is he fighting for? At one point, he even tries to commit suicide because of his disappointment that he’s dedicated his life to murdering Pan, who has now grown into middle-age and become a lawyer. Hoffman gives one of his showiest performances here and it makes me wish this WAS a Maleficient-like tale about what makes Hook tick and how fucking annoying Pan was and still is. The skill with which he plays different facets of the character are a joy to behold. During the attempted self-murder he switches from irritated to dripping with anger to introspective to suicidal to accepting to downright elated all during the course of one scene.
To that point, Bob Hoskins as Smee is the perfect actor for Hoffman to bounce off of. He’s hilarious and provides a dark, intelligent edge to a character that is clearly meant to be nothing more than comic relief.

”Looky looky, I got Hook-y”
Another thing Bob Hoskins brings to the role is an unkempt crassness not seen in a children’s movie since Joe Pesci’s turn in Home Alone (I know that’s not a huge timeframe… but they’re both standouts). Lines like “It’s Peter, floggin’, flyin’ Pan!” and “That’s Pan or I’ve got a dead man’s dinghy” are delivered with a playful spin on his usual Cockney menace that make them sound even dirtier than the implied profanities. The whole script has such a perverse, disgusting edge that I’m still a bit surprised that this ended up with a PG rating. And I haven’t even mentioned the insult-trading scene between Rufio and Pan at the imaginary dinner table. “Near-sighted gynecologist” isn’t innuendo… it’s a straight-up, explicit statement. But calling someone a “cheesy, scab-picked, pimple-squeezing finger bandage” or telling someone who is “munchin’ on your own mucus” to “Go suck on a dead dog’s nose” is a little much. I’d almost rather they just call each other “cocksuckers” at that point. Regardless, there’s a sense of risk-taking in the film that one can at least appreciate a bit, even if some of it isn’t executed at its best.
While the film does have some issues with tone, it’s important to note that it's still a children’s film with some bite... which is somewhat noble. From the explicit statement that nearly all the characters (pirates and Lost Boys alike) have, at some point, committed murder to the aforementioned suicide scene, death is such a constant that it seems to mitigate the goofy tone. Or, on the other side of the coin, death isn’t given its proper gravitas which results in a washed out mess. I’m still not sure. It’s a strange choice to mix Little Rascals-like slapstick involving eggs and paint with some old-fashioned swashbuckling (“Once you shed blood, it’s hard to stop”) in the climactic battle, but because of the strange world that was set-up, the fight between the Lost Boys and Hook’s pirates was actually the one thing that was better than I remember. Part of this is because (SPOILER ALERT, I GUESS!) of Rufio’s death. This was something that even as a youngster felt unearned to me since Rufio is an unlikable cad the whole flick, but it actually IS meaningful because of how it relates to the reuniting of Pan and his son. Rufio’s final words to Pan that he wishes he “had a dad… like you” may be especially maudlin and come out of nowhere. But they fully commit to the themes of the film regarding rebellion, authority, and maturity.
After this, the movie executes a masterful stroke (which it immediately undoes). There is no initial defeat of Hook. After Pan wins back his kids through love and sacrifice and all that jazz, he leaves Hook sitting there and refuses to fight. As they walk away his daughter Maggie (Amber Scott) remarks, “You need a mother very, very badly!” (an initial motivation from Barrie’s original stories was that Hook wanted to kidnap Wendy and make her the mother of all the pirates). Much like the Joker with Batman, Hook needs his rival in order to feel anything in life, and taking that final confrontation away from the villain is the only way to truly vanquish him. Unfortunately, this ending is undone by a threat from Hook that he will keep kidnapping Pan’s offspring until the end of time… and they have a prolonged fight where Hook is stereotypically defeated.

”Lesson One: Why Parents Hate their Children?”
One of the brilliant things this "family" movie accomplishes is that it delves into some of the mechanics of how abusers and kidnappers function. The psychological warfare Hook employs against Pan’s kids to “win them” to his side is a terrifying analogue for what happens in the real world. Hook plays beautifully into the insecurities of children (“Before you were born, they were happier. They were free.”) to display trust, power, and make the imprisonment easier. The following moment where Hook finally convinces Pan's son to respect and trust him is wonderfully written and truthfully performed. In fact, it's so well done that it’s painful to watch:

Jack (referencing Peter being unable to fly and save them earlier in the film): He wouldn’t save us.
Hook: He couldn’t save you.
Jack: He… he wouldn’t. And he didn’t even try. He was there and we were there and he wouldn’t try. (Jack begins to cry and childishly pulls his baseball cap over his face to hide the tears)
Hook: Jack, he will try. And the question will be: When the time comes, do you want to be saved? Now, don’t you answer now. No no no no no no. Now it’s time to be whatever you want to be. Put behind you any thoughts of home; that place of broken promises. Have I ever made a promise, Jack, I have not kept?... Have I, son?

It’s practically a blueprint for the mindgames that people who prey on children utilize and it is endlessly creepy and affecting in the film. Prior to that scene, Jack breaks timepieces with a hammer shouting ways in which his father let him down. For a bunch of random clocks in the shop he shouts truly scarring things like “For never doing anything with me.” and “For always making promises and breaking them!” However, for the pocketwatch that his father gave him (the one that’s supposed to have some sort of significance, I guess) his 'shoutout' is, “This is for… for never letting me blow bubbles in my chocolate milk!” It’s the insignificant and childish things that we give a lot of weight to when we’re kids, and in this instance it's heartbreaking.

”You know you’re not really Peter Pan, don’t you? This is only a dream.”
The above line is spoken directly by Hook to Peter in the middle of the final fight. It’s meant as a way to destroy his newfound youthful confidence, I think, but it kind of gave me an epiphany (“an apostrophe?”) about how I should have been thinking of Hook all along. The movie is whimsical, mysterious, but most importantly, intensely surreal. Underrated cinematographer (at least by Academy standards) Dean Cundey shows the mundane world with shallow lenses and straightforward lighting that give it an unmistakably early 90’s brightness and flatness, but when anything fanciful occurs it becomes not necessarily dreamlike, but hyperrealistic. The world seemingly fills more of the frame (I assume there's a change in aspect ratio, but I'm not too great at catching that) and the colors become exceptionally vibrant.
Just like a dream there is little concept of time or space, but it doesn’t feel like an oversight. The place where the Lost Boys live contains an area with snow and penguins directly next to a forest full of tropical vines. The older Peter Banning taps into his repressed memories as Peter Pan, learns to fly, and gets in significantly better physical shape in a matter of three days.
In fact, the idea of memory and identity is explored in the movie in a way that no other adaptation of Barrie’s stories has accurately touched upon. In addition to having forgotten his birth parents and life as Peter Pan during his adult life, Banning also forgets his wife during his training. Hell, even Jack suddenly forgets his own father during the end of his time with Captain Hook… despite the fact that they talk about him incessantly during the whole brainwashing portion. In the book, Pan forgets nearly everything people tell him almost immediately. It’s one of the hints that his carefree attitude and inability to grow-up aren’t necessarily positive attributes.
There is another line from Barrie's work that all the Lost Boys “knew it was make-believe, while to [Peter] make-believe and true were exactly the same thing”. Hook ostensibly plays off this idea in a hokey celebration of youth and imagination. But the underlying point of the movie is that Peter Pan does grow-up and creates a substantial life for himself. Maybe he grows up too hard and neglects his children for work… but I don’t think what’s on the screen totally supports that the main theme is “never grow up”. In fact, the movie subverts a famous line from the book ("To die will be an awfully big adventure"). As the camera cranes back from a balcony in the Darling house Pan stands by his family and, as the last line of the movie, states “To live would be an awfully big adventure.” He is celebrating the idea that he got the opportunity to grow-up.
For young children at the time, the lair of the Lost Boys might have seemed fun, but it also fulfills another purpose. As the audience grows up, we understand that that world is obnoxious and unappealing. I might be stretching here, but I don't think this is entirely an accident. Nostalgia might be fun to a point, but Peter Pan’s “happy thought” to fly wasn’t his childhood or his parents… it was his own child who he still feels responsible for. The victory over Captain Hook is not just physical, it’s also that Pan has accepted the necessity for maturity instead of repressing it as his nemesis does. The corollary to that is when Moira tells him why his kids are more important than his job: “They want to play with you. How long do you think that will last… So fast, Peter. It’s a few years, then it’s over.” This depressingly pragmatic line acts as the adult extension to the last line of Barrie's source material: “…and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.” (emphasis added)

Stray Observations:
- I have a higher tolerance for Robin Williams than most… but how much better would this have been with Tom Hanks or Kevin Kline as originally planned? Williams' change from crotchety father to boyish hero doesn’t quite work… and he “Robin Williamses out” a bit too often before that transition.
- Charlie Korsmo exudes an amazingly sardonic charm that I’ve always loved in this one. He’s about 12 or 13, so he’s old enough to know what he’s doing… but on rewatch I think this is one of my favorite child performances of all time.
- I mentioned abused kids above, but wanted to point out how much the boney, pale Jack in his mini-Captain Hook outfit with outlandish buttons, black curly hair, and shoulder pads reminded me of Feldman/Culkin dressing like Michael Jackson. Very odd… especially since Jackson was attached to play Peter Pan at one point.
- In the first 15 minutes, Spielberg does some E.T.-like crosstalk and natural moments that make me wish he used that style more today. Although the 1-minute tracking shot as they enter Wendy’s house doesn’t make much sense.
- Why the hell was Phil Collins in this again? We all know that David Crosby, Glenn Close, and Jimmy Buffett played pirates… and part of that has some logic to it. But Phil Collins isn’t even a useful cameo. He’s just there as a police inspector with two lines.
- In other cameo news, George Lucas and Carrie Fisher play the couple making out on Westminster Bridge. As fairy dust accidentally sprinkles on them they begin to float to the sky and are so engrossed in their “happy thought” they don’t notice. Cheesy, but an effective touch that always meant a lot to me.
- A nice little foreshadowing to Spielberg’s next project: As Robin Williams argues on the phone about an endangered owl that’s throwing a wrench in some billion dollar deal he remarks “It’s evolution! Does anyone miss the T-Rex?” to which his son, Jack, overhears and replies “Oh boy! Do I ever!” To hammer home the connection more, the role of Jack was reportedly almost played by Joseph Mazzarello.
- I don’t think it can be said enough, but R.I.P. Bob Hoskins.

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