Think Happy Thoughts! Hook Is 30

Everybody sure hated it!

Movies Features Steven Spielberg
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Think Happy Thoughts! <i>Hook</i> Is 30

There are all kinds of creative reasons one might pull an old story off the shelf, dust it off, and try to retell it. Times change, and our assessment of popular characters or mythical constructs have to change with them, or at least fit into our hearts in a different way. Then there is the most obvious reason: When you draw from the public domain, you don’t have to pay anybody any royalties or hustle around for any movie rights to make your big blockbuster movie about a character people already know. It was inevitable that when Peter Pan entered the public domain in 1987, somebody was going to start making movies about him.

Steven Spielberg, backed up by producing pals Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, stepped up to take a swing at it with 1991’s Hook. In so doing they made a movie that began Robin Williams on his path to making the kid-friendly movies that introduced him to a young generation, inspired John Williams to make one of his most complex scores ever, and told a story that actually feels like an interesting continuation of Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie’s original works.

Critics fucking hated it.

As the Christmas-movie-by-default turns 30, I think I’m finally old enough to understand why they felt that way, even if they were and are and will always be wrong, especially when you look at the movie in context with the bafflingly numerous failed Peter Pan adaptations of the past 20 years that I’ll bet you didn’t even remember until I brought them up just now.

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We are introduced to Peter Banning (Robin Williams), a boring lawyer dude enslaved by 1991’s chonkiest cell phone. He, his wife and the kids he neglects (Amber Scott and Charlie Korsmo) pack it all up and head to London for a stuffy function in honor of Granny Wendy (Maggie Smith, not yet 60 at the time and consequently immortal in the minds of millennials). We are told in no uncertain terms that the Peter Pan stories were based on the bedtime stories of her and her siblings. After setting Williams up as an inattentive workaholic father who wants to be there for his kids but won’t actually take steps to do it, they are kidnapped in the night, and a ransom note left signed “Jas. Hook, Captain.”

Peter can’t or won’t remember the truth that is pretty obvious to us, which is that he is the real, actual Peter Pan from the storybooks. He keeps denying it even as Julia Roberts’ Tinkerbell comes to snatch him up to Neverland, even as various pirates and Lost Boys and apparently mermaids all recognize him. After getting immediately owned by Hook and chickening out of a chance to save his kids, Banning is given three days to get back into shape so that he and his nemesis may duel to the death at the head of their respective, unbathed armies. He does, and they do.

Whether or not you enjoy the proceedings likely depends on whether Williams’ Pan and Dustin Hoffman’s Hook do anything for you. If you were going to cast an adult version of the boy who wouldn’t grow up, it’s hard to envision a more apt choice than Williams. This was a generation’s introduction to him, before he would go on to motor through impressions in Aladdin or do battle with CGI animals in Jumanji, before the drastic heel turn he would attempt in his late career with movies like One Hour Photo and Insomnia. In a lot of ways, the movie plays to his strengths as an actor who so often played weirdos or literally otherworldly beings: There are scenes (like his awkward speech in front of a room full of hospital donors) where it feels as if Williams is playing the character like a stunted man who is acting like he believes grown-ups are supposed to act. He stutters during it, like it’s some kind of behavioral pattern that he must knowingly maintain instead of one that comes to him naturally.

Hoffman, meanwhile, is unrecognizable as Hook. He does not look or sound like Dustin Hoffman ever looks or sounds in anything else the guy has ever been in. He’s self-aggrandizing, sesquipedalian, openly contemptuous of his underlings, and ready to throw aside his “good form” if it’ll let him draw some blood during a fight. His every line reading is playing to the cheap seats. There is a reason the movie is named after him and that Hoffman gets top billing. I don’t know if it’s good. I know I first saw it 30 years ago and I remember almost every single line that comes out of the character’s mouth, and they are frequently hilarious.

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There is a lot in Hook that sadly does not work. Julia Roberts is wasted as Tinkerbell, and is also bizarrely shoved into contrived, late-in-the-last-reel romantic tension with Peter Pan. Marshall and Kennedy and Spielberg evidently spent a lot on sets and costumes, and the set pieces and stunts to show them off, but it mostly serves to make the movie feel longer even than its nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime. The movie is bloodless right up until it’s not, a moment that—after fat kids bowling pirates off gangplanks and machine gun egg-launchers—feels tonally off.

There is also a lot that works better than people gave it credit for. Williams bounces off his child co-stars pretty effectively, every scene with Hoffman and Bob Hoskins’ Smee is funny, and the movie gave the world Dante Basco, who plays the bad boy Pan heir apparent Rufio and has gone on to be great in lots of other stuff. John Williams’ score is one of the most thematically complex things the man ever composed. The movie also, crucially, took a stance on what it was actually about.

Still lacking in the crucial epiphany that will complete his rebirth as the true Peter Pan, Banning wanders his old haunts, discovering an old hidey hole of keepsakes. Finally, we are treated to the flashback that reveals how the hell Peter Pan became the humorless Baby Boomer who has a fear of heights. The stories were all true, and then the world kept moving on, and eventually even Peter Pan must find a cute enough girl to convince him to take a shower. (Moira, Wendy’s granddaughter, has a poster of the Beatles over her bed, a detail that exists at the exact nexus of your Boomer parents growing up and discovering drugs and sex right before they all became humorless sellouts who have dedicated their lives to you never being able to do drugs or have sex.)

“To die would be a great adventure!” Williams’ Pan says in the climactic bout with Hook. After winning that fight (and Hook dying to level geometry because he won’t let the fight be over), he and his kids return to the Known again. To live, he reflects, is an even greater adventure. I did not realize until recently that these lines are borrowed directly from Barrie, in a way that understands his work and moves it forward: Peter contemplates death as an adventure when he’s in the midst of a tight spot, and the narrator opines that if he would just grow up enough, he would realize life is an adventure. The point the movie is trying to make is that the scary things about growing up are worth enduring.

Hook does not always do a great job of getting that across! But Williams, an actor whose intelligence we were only ever occasionally allowed to fully fathom, seems as if he knows this. And this makes Hook more interesting than any of the other times filmmakers tried to return to Neverland and couldn’t even make a film you actually remember.


Kenneth Lowe has lost his marbles. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.