By Matt Fleming. As a child, I spent an inordinate amount of time watching comedies on cable and VHS. My mother would insist that I go outside and enjoy the beautiful weather. I would respond, “but Mom, Back To The Future is on HBO right now.” As an adult, I’m attempting to unpack the films of my yesteryear to see how they have held up, how they have affected my life, and where they stand in the annals of nostalgia.
Prologue: “The Boy-King of Hollywood.”
With the passing of Robin Williams still fresh on the world’s psyche, watching any of his output is a heavy task. He was a singular performer during my lifetime, and I wear his legacy in my humor, and on my skin (I have a SHAZBOT tattoo, for Pete’s sake). The last thing I want to do is eviscerate anything Robin has touched, but Hook is ripe for the picking. I will say one thing going in: Robin Williams is one of the bright points of this film, and the world is substantially lesser following his departure. I am not alone in the sadness of his death.
Now that the tears have dried, Hook is one of Steven Spielberg’s middle career hiccups, bookmarked by Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade and Jurassic Park. Among contemporary film writers, I am a vocal advocate for Spielberg’s work; although I bemoan the current blockbuster frenzy of Hollywood (which I wholly blame on Kevin Costner’s Waterworld), Spielberg has earned his place as a great American director. However, his interpretation of the classic J. M. Barrie play Peter Pan; or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up is an instance of the filmmaker’s hubris.
Spielberg was a big deal in the early ‘90s, after successes like Jaws, ET: the Extra-Terrestrial, and the Indiana Jones franchise. These American tentpoles should not discount his failures, such as 1941 and Always, both missteps in his early career. In 1991, Spielberg was the new Hollywood, still fresh, yet with only twelve films in the can. He had successfully encapsulated post-Vietnam Americana through cinema, so it could be argued that the highly competent, yet safe director would be perfect for translating the iconic Peter Pan to celluloid for a new generation. A fully fleshed-out, semi-modern fairy tale appealing to adults and children alike is the perfect vehicle for a hitmaker like Spielberg. Wouldn’t manic-man-child Robin Williams be perfect as the boy who wouldn’t grow up, finally grown-up?
The answer to these questions is a loud ‘nope.’
Part One: The Plot, or “Don’t You Know Who You Are?”
Steven Spielberg’s ham-handed schmaltz party begins with several shots of stupid-looking children, jaws agape, staring at a primary school production of Peter Pan. One of these kids is picking his nose. This is what I felt like for the next two hours and change.
Because you can’t have a modern take on Peter Pan without the meta, you have to begin the film like this: bad yuppie dad Peter Banning (Williams) struggles to sit through the play, about his as-yet-forgotten past life, in which his daughter plays Wendy, the girl who rescued him from eternal childhood. Think about the weird connections making that sentence possible. To illustrate how terrible Peter is as a father, we see him rudely answer his cell phone in the middle of his daughter’s play to take a call which will force him to miss his son’s “big game” (the kid shows his dad a baseball, in case he forgot what sports are). The scene of Peter being a bad dad (as he putzes around a cliche-filled “business-office,”) while his family repeat the “where’s your father?” and his son Jack (Charlie Korsmo) maybe catches a ball, is scored by the worst dental office music John Williams could fart out. The cycle of disappointment is such: Peter disappoints his kid, who disappoints his teammates by not hitting the baseball, and I am disappointed that this is only two minutes in.
The Banning family is flying to London for a celebration of Granny Wendy (Maggie Smith), the partial inspiration for J.M. Barrie’s “fictional” tales of Neverland. By the way, the voice of the plane’s pilot is clearly Captain Hook’s. (Also, Peter is afraid of flying, of course.) When they arrive, Wendy is shocked to find the Peter Pan she once rescued has become a complete asshole. He shouts at his family over a blown deal, and some very clunky lines are exchanged between he and his wife Moira (the charming Caroline Goodall) after she throws his phone out the window. Surprisingly, she doesn’t ask for a divorce.
Peter warns his kids about the dangers of windows (“What have I told you about playing near open windows? Do we have open windows at home?” “No, they all have bars on them.” Ouch.) and he leaves them in the care of a dog and crazy old man named Tootles who has lost his marbles. While Peter, Moira, and Wendy are gone, the film turns Poltergeist and the two kids are kidnapped by green space-pirate wind. (?) A note is pinned to a door with a pirate dagger, requesting Peter’s presence in another dimension (but don’t worry, Chief Inspector Phil Collins is on the case). Wendy reveals that the terrified shell of a man Peter has become was once the real Peter Pan, a fun-loving, swashbuckling boy who could fly. She does this in an incredibly creepy scene where we almost see Robin Williams make out with Maggie Smith. While getting drunk in the childrens’ room, he is assaulted by the fairy Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts, who so clearly is acting in a room by herself throughout the film), and whisked away to Neverland.
Finally, we meet the pirates of Neverland, led by Captain James Hook (Dustin Hoffman) and his right-hand man Smee (the late, great Bob Hoskins), whose shanty town and ship are crammed into a soundstage. Hook challenges Peter to fly to his kids’ aide, and of course he fails them, again. Rather than killing the lot of ‘em, Hook is persuaded by Tink to give her a chance to bring Peter back to fighting form. Hook’s pride cedes to the pixie and Peter is shipped off to the Lost Boys, while the Captain sulks and puts a gun to his own head. Hook devises a plan to turn the kids against their absentee parent, an easy feat at least with the angsty Jack. Meanwhile, The Lost boys, bad child actors in rags and paint, humiliate Peter for an extended period of time. (Bangarang!) The gang is led by the tri-hawk that would inspire pop-punk for years, Rufio. As the leader of the crew in Peter’s absence, Rufio is arrogant, and skeptical of the true identity of the old man, and as such behaves cruelly toward him. This makes Rufio sort of a mini-boss that Pete has to overcome before testing his mettle against the guy who kidnapped his children.
In a sub-Rocky montage, the Lost Boys torture Peter endlessly while spouting rhymes and shifting seasons without leaving what appears to be the world’s largest tree fort. Old Pan has lost his imagination, and his happy thoughts, and his memories, and I still don’t care. Robin Williams doesn’t seem to mind acting against these slow-witted kids, and for the first time in the movie, he is almost funny. During the invisible meal scene, Peter and Rufio exchange verbal barbs until Pan the Man finally catches on to the fun, starting a brightly-colored food fight, and sending his rival sulking away. Oh, then Rufio tries to bean him in the head with a coconut. Pete makes some moves, and suddenly he appears Pan-ish.
After the obligatory lonely child gazing at the stars musical number (performed by the precocious Amber Scott as Maggie), we return to Hook’s grand scheme. He and his pirates recreate the game of baseball, with Hook filling in as proud papa. He actually seems to be a better, albeit more evil, dad than Peter has in years. Where Pete couldn’t be bothered to attend a big game, Hook teaches his entire crew how to organize, play, and even fix a baseball game, and Jack even hits a home run (Hook’s grip on Jack is almost broken by the phrase “run home,” because pirates aren’t great at grammar). Upon seeing his son in the fatherly embrace of another man, Peter’s resolve is renewed, and Tinkerbell takes him into the treehouse of memories. In a clunky, terribly written scene, he points to objects and places in a room as his days of being an eternal child flood his brain. More unnecessary flashbacks lead to his epiphany: I love my family after all! Once he has his happy thought back, he begins flying to and fro like Robin Williams in a Peter Pan costume. He also immediately, albeit briefly, forgets about his kids, the thought of whom gave him the ability to fly seconds earlier. Um… then Tinkerbell grows into full size, and Julia Roberts has her one scene of the movie acting against a human, and she has to kiss Peter right on the mouth, because all the ladies in this movie want to bang Robin Williams. It’s the smooching with woman-sized Tink that reminds him that he loves his wife, proving that some guys are always thinking about someone else. Anyhow, Rufio concedes to the real Peter Pan, and the gang prepares for war.
Okay, so then they have a fight, and the Lost Boys use their imaginations to beat up a bunch of pirates. The action is pretty suffocated because the sets feel so small. Jack, dressed as Mini-Hook, sees how cool his dad has become, I guess, and slowly begins to turn against the pirates. My favorite part of the fight is when the fat Lost Boy hits David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in the junk with a wooden plank. Just when we might be having fun, of course, Hook kills Rufio, whose dying words to Peter gave me a stomach ache (“I wish I had a dad… like you.”). Seeing his pirate stepdad murder his real-flying-dad’s cool friend makes Jack realize that pirating isn’t for him, and he jumps ship from Hook’s side. What follows is a very slow and boring swordfight; let’s be honest, we’re watching two middle-aged actors play pirates, and it’s no good. Finally, after some stop-starts, Hook is engulfed by the giant dead crocodile who ate his hand.
Even though the movie is over, it isn’t. Peter leaves the fat one in charge of the Lost Boys, breaks Tink’s heart once more, and whisks his kids back home. Upon their return, everyone is pleasantly surprised to find that stuffy old Peter now wants to be a good, fun dad and let the kids eat cookies for dinner or whatever. Family is reunited, and Tootles gets his marbles back and flies back to Neverland as the oldest Lost Boy ever. Two hours and eighteen minutes of precious life has been sapped.
Part Two: The Cast, or “The Lost Actors.”
Every actor committed to their craft constantly seeks new challenges. This is troublesome when these projects are poorly directed, under/overwritten, or veer too far from the audience’s perception or expectations. One example that immediately comes to mind is the Coen Brothers’ 2004 stinker The Ladykillers, in which Tom Hanks unsuccessfully channels an absurd dandy, and the Coens’ fail to convince the audience that they needed this remake. Such is evident in the late 1980s-early 1990s output from Hook’s very recognizable (and bankable) leads. Dustin Hoffman, beloved for a career full of iconic performances (The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Tootsie) and accolades (Best Actor Oscars for Kramer Vs. Kramer and Rain Man), begins his slow descent into supporting actor hell around 1990. The failure of Family Business, his mumbling in Dick Tracy; his name will not break the box office for films past the early ‘90s. On the other side of the coin, Robin Williams is on a career streak of dramatic turns after a legendary comedic career: Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, and The Fisher King each exhibit a new depth to his range, and he gains tremendous respect. Hook does nothing to make things better for either actor.
You cannot compress Robin Williams’ energy for so much of a movie and expect it to be released exponentially when you finally untether him. He’s generally boring, irritating, unlikable, and unsympathetic in the first half of Hook, and I refuse to believe that this was the only way to play an adult Peter Pan. The character’s motivations and fears are convoluted and unclear, and Peter Banning is unbelievably terrible. Let me rephrase: I do not believe this character is capable of having ever been a lithe and playful child, unless his foster parents severely abused and neglected him. Apparently, he just forgot his childhood, and his fantastic origins and sense of wonder, and decided that mergers and acquisitions (and scotch) made him happy. His neglected kids and clearly unhappy wife should have dumped him on the curb in exchange for a financial settlement 15 minutes into this movie. Williams should be able to play straight and boring without coming across as a completely irredeemable character.
This complicates the character’s second and third acts. Williams is stifled and made into a chump for so long that I just don’t care when the story calls for the switch. After he is first humiliated by Rufio, one Lost Boy plies Peter’s face until it evokes a lame smile, and he insists, “oh, there you are, Peter.” Between his advice and Tink’s sense of smell (“… the smell of someone who has ridden the back of the wind…”), there is little evidence that this guy is even capable of fun, let alone flying. Williams is such a dynamic performer, once he spends so long in serious jerk-mode, his attempt at high energy expression and signature mania is deflated. This is going to upset a lot of fans of Hook, but upon retrospect I think Robin Williams was miscast as Peter Pan. He’s too effective with the complicated garbage that makes Peter Banning unlikable to make the transition to the classic Forever-Boy. A younger Williams may have been up to the task, but this is not the way to channel Williams’ energy. It comes across as a battery short.
In the case of Dustin Hoffman, his turn as Captain James Hook is probably one of my few highlights. The unfortunate truth is that the script is so terrible, Hook’s character rarely seems to transcend stereotypical villainy, and if the audience didn’t have some knowledge of the Peter Pan mythos in advance, his reactions would seem a bit overkill. When given the opportunity to have fun with the role (such as his feigned suicide scene with Hoskins’ Smee), he really eats it up. Those moments are few, and for this award-winner, the glory days have passed, and we will not see anything too impressive from Hoffman again until 2004’s I Heart Huckabees.
The worst of the lot is Julia Roberts, whose performance in this was likely affected by her well-publicized breakup with Flatliners co-star Kiefer Sutherland. Also, the scope of chroma key effects in 1991 was limited, and the effects team may have been understaffed, underfunded, or just underwhelmed. Her acting is disjointed, likely a result of the lack of human interaction in her scenes, and although she looks the part, the execution is absent. America’s sweetheart she may be, but here she is outshone by the blip of light that does her heavy lifting.
The rest of the supporting cast (the adults) is just fine. Bob Hoskins is pretty much perfect as Smee, and when he gets some chances to show his comedic timing and expressive face (his eating of a depressed Hook’s turkey leg made me chuckle), it’s pretty fun. Maggie Smith is right for an old-lady Wendy, Caroline Goodall excels at generic pretty English wife, and… well the rest of the adults are famous musicians in cameos (I left out Jimmy Buffett earlier, my bad) and dudes dressed like pirates, so that’s fine.
Oh, but the kids.
Charlie Korsmo was in three high-profile movies as a child actor: Dick Tracy, What About Bob?, and Hook. His performances in the first two made it hard to sit through the third without inducing a headache. I blame two things: the script, and Spielberg. As a child actor, he has been serviceable and even funny before this role. Peter’s neglect has turned Jack into a mini-asshole, and by the time he starts dressing like Captain Hook, I figured he should stay a pirate, and Peter should rescue the daughter and cut his losses. Maggie, precocious Amber Scott in her only role, delivers pretty bad lines with just enough zeal to make them a bit better; seriously, her obsession with finding mommies for pirates is over the top. Rufio (Dante Basco, voice of Prince Zuko in the Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoons), is both the eldest and most natural Lost Boy. The rest of the ragamuffins overact and take direction poorly, and they seem more like regular orphans than fun, adventurous eterna-children.
Conclusions, or “The Ship In The Bottle Will Never Sail.”
Steven Spielberg initially entered pre-production for his interpretation of Peter Pan in 1985, before losing interest and returning to the Indiana Jones franchise. The delays continued: the script required multiple rewrites, the project changed creative hands multiple times, and by the beginning of filming, nobody seemed to care anymore. The production went over schedule and over budget, and ultimately underperformed.
First, you have a clunky, excessively ambitious story and script. Too much is attempted to reconcile in the concept of The Pan Who Forgot, and it’s hammered so hard over the audience’s head that I actually said “ouch” at one point. To update such a well known tale and return to a beloved universe is not that hard; George Lucas had the same problem with his dreadful Star Wars Prequel Trilogy (the reader, like the audience, doesn’t need everything reiterated with such ham-handed obviousness). Does adult Peter have to fear flying? Does he have to be such a miserably unhappy man? Does he really have to be the world’s worst dad? No, you can make Peter into an adult without completely wiping his entire identity, because by doing that you force the audience to understand that he has to transform without ever actually wanting him to.
Additionally, Hook is a grand fantasy that feels utterly enclosed and suffocated due to the limitations of soundstages and visual effects. Everything about Neverland is far too small and tight to ever really fly. Even the few times they try to loosen up, it looks too fake, the frame too busy with unnecessary filler. To contrast, the editing is about as loose and sloppy as I have seen. This movie could have lost twenty minutes just around the edges and still been communicated as effectively as the script allowed. There’s so much extra going on: scenes start too early, they end too late; character asides are superfluous and take up way too much time. The execution of Hook looks amateur, and instead of Spielberg phoning it in, he should have just phoned home.
I understand the nostalgia associated with bits of this one. There are a few sweet moments: I dare you not to tear up a little during “When You’re Alone.” Upon review, through the eyes of someone who has mostly grown up, it is apparent that nobody, save for the kids and maybe the pirates, really wanted to be a part of this movie. Moreover, nobody wants Peter Pan to grow up. Halfway into making this movie, the adults all seem to get that, and it seems to depress them, as it did with me, that they will never have the fun making a Peter Pan movie that the kids in this, or in any school play, will ever have. Never-never, man. Perhaps a better adaptation of the Peter Pan mythology is possible with modern effects, and with a real reimagining of the tale, but lets hope the grown ups stay further away, unless they really want to play.