Hook must’ve had an elevator pitch for the ages: Imagine a sequel to Peter Pan, starring Robin Williams as an adult version of the character. Next, add Dustin Hoffman as an aging Captain Hook, and Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell. Now, let’s seal it with Steven Spielberg in the director’s chair and John Williams in front of an orchestra. Put all that together, and you’ve got the closest Hollywood could ever get to a sure thing.
Of course, reality could never quite match such hypothetical perfection. The critics were not kind. Box office receipts were strong, but not the record-shattering take you’d expect. On set, Roberts was apparently a nightmare to work with, prompting to the famously laid-back Spielberg to never work with her again. The production went way over budget and behind schedule, another rarity for the director. TL; DR: The makers of Hook seemed determined to snatch failure from the jaws of guaranteed success.
None of that intrigue would matter to the pint-sized version of me, who experienced the film on its opening weekend. I adored every minute of Hook, from the ambitious special effects and set design to Williams’ thundering music and Hoffman’s loopy performance. It was the first Spielberg film I saw in the theater, and I was blown away. Yes, a fog of disappointment has gathered around the film, especially as Spielberg’s legend has grown. (In two years, he would set the all-time box office record for Jurassic Park and win his first competitive Oscar for Schindler’s List.) But if this is pitched as a children’s movie and the kids walk away happy, how bad could it be?
More on that in a bit. Spielberg cuts the story for Hook into very distinct thirds. The first portion introduces us to Peter Banning (Williams), a middle-aged corporate raider. He’s paunchy, haggard, and with a flip phone glued to the side of his face. Peter has a wife (Caroline Goodall) and two kids (Charlie Korsmo and Amber Scott), but he has no time for any of them. He sends an office flunky to videotape ballgames and recitals. In this opening act, we see Peter as a man both overcharged and exhausted.
All that changes when the family heads to London for Christmas. It turns out that Peter was raised an orphan, and his caretaker, Wendy (Maggie Smith), is up for a big award. Predictably, Peter spends trip yammering business lingo into his cell phone and pacing around Wendy’s sprawling house. One night, a mysterious figure bounds into the children’s room and whisks them away. Horrified, the Bannings phone the police, but get no satisfaction.
At this point, Wendy drops a fantastical revelation: She’s not just any Wendy; she’s the Wendy, from Barrie’s fairy tales. More incredibly, Peter Banning is actually Peter Pan. Now, Captain James Hook (Hoffman) has returned to exact his revenge. That means Peter will have to find the second star to the right and rescue his children.
The arrival of Tink (Julia Roberts) sets up the film’s second act. She sprinkles a little dust on an incredulous Peter and drags him to Neverland. Naturally, the Lost Boys are alarmed at the high-strung yuppie who lands in their realm. After all, Peter Pan could never grow into this hairy dad-bod…could he?!
In this stretch of the story, Peter must regain his lost memories, win over the Lost Boys, and train up for his inevitable battle with the Hook. Spielberg also intercuts to Hook’s ship, where he attempts to win the hearts and minds of Peter’s children. We see Hook as a foppish megalomaniac, heavily dependent on Smee (Bob Hoskins), his gibbering underling.
This protracted second act ultimately gives way to the third, in which Pan crosses swords with Hook. Spielberg’s climactic battle alternately silly and startingly violent. Finally, everything mellows into a gooey finish.
I’ll kick off my analysis with a small disclaimer: My adult opinion of this film will be influenced by childhood nostalgia. I loved Hook too much then to completely turn against it now. Three and a half stars is as low as the little kid within me will allow. Now that we have that understanding, let’s proceed:
As with many of Spielberg’s lesser works, the individual pieces work better than the whole. Williams is perfectly cast, but he doesn’t relax into the role until the film’s second half. This gives Hoffman more than enough time to walk off with the movie, which he does. His Hook is a pompous blowhard, and Hoffman pulls off this preening arrogance with expert comic timing. Hoskins is damn near his match, playing Smee in the long tradition of skilled bootlickers. The only sore thumb here is Roberts, who seems too glamorous for this movie’s unhinged silliness.
From a technical standpoint, Hook is absolutely brilliant. Spielberg melds matte paintings, CGI, and massive sets to create a living, breathing, cinematic world that harkens back to classic Hollywood. Art designers Norman Garwood and Garrett Lewis do a phenomenal job, and it’s amazing they lost the Academy Award. (To Bugsy.) That goes ditto for John Williams, who delivers a rollicking, brass-driven score that matches the goofy, adventurous tone of the film. Dean Cundey’s cinematography is also jaw-dropping. If nothing else, Hook is a spectacular film to watch.
Now, for the flaws: At 144 minutes, Hook is unforgivably long. Spielberg spends too much time wallowing in the second act, and it greatly hinders the film’s momentum. It’s as if they spent soooo much money, nobody could bring themselves to cut anything. Also, Spielberg gets way too cute, and way too often. He supplies the Lost Boys with precious Hallmark moments, many of which get real cringey. (“I believe in you…Peter Pan!“) This is especially true in the closing scenes, where Spielberg gets so saccharine, it almost feels like barfing up candy after Halloween. A little bit less could’ve been so much more.
Okay, no more quibbling. Even if it never quite comes together, many of the film’s individual moments are still a lot of fun. I still love watching Williams in a food fight, or Hoffman smashing every clock he can find. Someday, I’ll share this Hook with my own kids. For any children’s movie, there could be no higher compliment.
144 min. PG. Netflix.