Sometimes when people grow up, they lose sight of the magic. In a certain 1991 adventure film, this was true both for Peter Pan, and for Steven Spielberg. As part of a series on Film Sentinel, each week we are revisiting a work from the career of Steven Spielberg. This week concerns one of the rare misfires in the icon’s prolific filmography: Hook, the 1991 cinematic sequel to the stage play and novel Peter Pan. With a saccharine script and dodgy visual effects, Hook is a charming adaptation, but the boy who wouldn’t grow up has seen better days than here.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
The character of Peter Pan was conceived by the Scottish author and playwright J.M. Barrie, who told the first incarnations of his story to his neighbors, the Llewelyn Davies children, whom he eventually adopted. Peter Pan first showed up in the 1902 novel The Little White Bird, and the character was later adjusted and used for Barrie’s 1904 stage play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. Barrie also adapted the play to the 1911 novel Peter Pan and Wendy, which in turn was adapted to a 1924 silent film, as well as an animated film in 1954 produced by Walt Disney.
Like many of us, Steven Spielberg was read the story of Peter Pan while growing up. As a lifelong fan of the story, Spielberg even directed a school production of Peter Pan when he was just 11. In the 1980s, Spielberg began developing an adaptation of Peter Pan as a musical, even at one point considering Michael Jackson for the lead part. However, when his first son Max was born, Spielberg dropped out. Nick Castle then came in to direct a script by Jim V. Hart that envisioned Peter Pan as an adult. Castle was eventually dismissed, and Spielberg rejoined the project.
In Hook, Peter Banning (Robin Williams) is a fully-grown Peter Pan with a family working as a lawyer in San Francisco. He has forgotten all about life in Neverland, and is obsessed with work, leading to conflict with his wife Moira (Caroline Goodall) and his son Jack (Charlie Korsmo). While visiting Moira’s grandmother, the original Wendy (Maggie Smith) in London, Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) kidnaps Peter’s children for revenge. After Wendy explains to Peter who he really is, Tinker Bell (Julia Roberts) returns to take Peter back to Neverland to save his kids.
The legendary and universally-cherished late Robin Williams plays an adult Peter Pan here, and though I love the man as much as anyone else, I would hesitate to say his casting here was wise. Similar to the recent cinematic depiction of Christopher Robin, this version of Peter Pan is overwhelmed by life, and has lost his inner child, while I can only view Williams as someone who always knows how to be a kid. Once Peter remembers who he is and regains his youthful spirit, the casting works, but the majority of the film concerns a glum adult, someone Williams is not.
But even so, Williams gives the role everything he’s got, and he’s always a pleasure to have on screen. Julia Roberts as Tinker Bell is also a delightful presence: light, perky, and always well-meaning, Roberts and the filmmakers take a slightly different approach than Tinker Bell’s well-known Disney depiction, and the role is quite endearing. And in a bit of perfect casting, Dustin Hoffman portrays Captain Hook. The pirate captain here is quite doofy, where I would prefer he was characterized as more menacing, but this is still clearly a role Hoffman was born to play.
Once it’s clear to everyone Peter is not the boy he once was, Tinker Bell strikes a deal with Hook to get him into fighting shape in three days so he can have another chance to save his kids. In a script whose structure is not thought out as good as it could be, the film then meanders for a great deal of time as Peter “trains” with the Lost Boys. Here he meets characters such as the leader Rufio (Dante Brasco), as well as the chubby and cheerful Lost Boy Thud Butt (Raushan Hammond). And I have to say, the “food” Peter eats with the Lost Boys does NOT look appetizing.
Hook is very different than most of Spielberg’s other films up to this point, as it’s a fantasy adventure film very clearly intended for family audiences. Poltergeist and Indiana Jones had fantasy elements and were partially family-oriented, but Hook qualifies as high fantasy, taking place in a totally fictionalized environment populated by fanciful creatures, and it is produced much more directly for children than any of Steven’s prior films. Steven’s works before this were often very grounded in the real world, and fantasy such as this requires an extensive use of imagination.
It’s because of Steven’s lack of experience in the category that I fault Hook’s shortcomings, as its main failings involve the film’s weakness in ability to transport the viewer to another world. Hook also differs from your standard Spielberg film in that is shot entirely on sound stage, where Spielberg’s usual motto is to always shoot on location to maximize realism. It’s because of this insistence that Spielberg became known for production delays and difficulties in his career, as he often shot in challenging environments such as the ocean that had never been done before.
But with Hook, Spielberg ran into delays anyways, and his predominant philosophy that sound stage productions are inferior is demonstrated immensely. As soon as Peter is whisked away from London and wakes up in Pirate Town, things immediately begin to feel artificial and contained. The scenes aboard the pirate ship are especially unconvincing as being on the open ocean, and the section of the film on the island with the Lost Boys clearly was not shot in actual jungle. The set design overall just appears hollow, and ultimately lacks aesthetics or personality.
Where Spielberg’s prior films tend to represent the value of practical effects compared to our current era of CGI, the fanciful setting of Neverland and the limitations of the time really prove that some films truly can benefit from digital technology. While the film offers a couple of attractive painted backdrops that give a broad overview of Neverland, the island ultimately feels very small. The film rarely offers any kind of bird’s eye view or panoramic shot to give the viewer the sense of the place’s expansive scale, making the setting feel remarkably restrained.
But even with all these problems, the film certainly has its charms. Spielberg might be in full sentimentality mode once again, but it feels less intrusive within a family film. For example, the scene where Peter’s backstory of how he came to Neverland is filled in by flashbacks is very compelling. Because of this, it’s not surprising that Hook has achieved cult status over the years, likely in part due to the enduring popularity of Robin Williams. But in the end, Hook still leaves a lot to be desired, and it ultimately represents one of the lowest points of the director’s career.
Next week is a big one: life finds a way in Spielberg’s classic dinosaur actioner Jurassic Park. The film is playing in some theaters; it’s also available on DVD and Blu-Ray, for streaming on Netflix, and for rental from your digital retailers. Give the movie a watch, and I’ll see you next week.