‘Hook’: What Happens When an Adult Revisits Spielberg’s Kids Movie?
[Note: This editorial was originally published on a prior date, but is being re-posted in anticipation of the release of Spielberg’s Ready Player One.]
Hook is one of the most curious entries in director Steven Spielberg’s illustrious filmography. Regarded by many as one of the worst films of his career, the movie opened in 1991 to solid box office but scathing reviews, and it’s hard not to look at Spielberg’s next film—Jurassic Park—as a direct answer to criticisms thrown his way for Hook. The director himself even now admits that he’s not a fan of the film, but a fascinating divide in public consciousness exists. Ask anyone who was an adult when Hook came out and they’ll tell you it’s terrible, but talk to someone who was a child or pre-teen at the time of release, and they likely have nothing but adoration for Spielberg’s twist on the Peter Pan story.
I’m firmly in the latter camp, but since I hadn’t seen Hook all the way through in years, I began to wonder if my opinion on the movie would change if I tried to watch it with fresh eyes, attempting to be as objective as possible. Would nostalgia keep my love for Hook intact, or would I now see the movie with a more cynical mindset, one in which that childlike wonder was shoved aside, leaving the film’s flaws laid bare with little to no redeeming qualities left?
Like nearly everyone else my age, I was obsessed with Hook in the early 90s. I can clearly remember listening to John Williams’ score on CD over and over again with Rufio sword in hand, acting out all the pirate-fighting with my own personal soundtrack putting me inside the movie. I sorely wanted to partake in that feast of colorful pies, I coveted the vast array of odd mischief-causing gadgets the Lost Boys had invented, and I was prone to random bouts of yelling “Bangarang!” while jumping off the back of my couch.
The funny thing is, this seems to be a common experience among those around my age (okay, maybe not the couch-jumping). Clearly Hook struck a nerve with folks in a very specific developmental period, and it’s not too hard to see why. The sets Spielberg constructed for the Neverland sequences were massive and, from a child’s point of view, magical. The world building is impressive, as Spielberg crafts a Neverland that is lush with colors and larger-than-life characters, brought to life by a very game Dustin Hoffman, Bob Hoskins, and Robin Williams, who was coming off a more dramatic period in his career.
Indeed, Hook marks a sort of turning point for Williams who, following three intense pictures—Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, and The Fisher King—found his inner child to bring adult Peter Pan to life. He would follow Hook with iconic performances in Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire, and it’s that sly playfulness (even when he’s being a jerk) that I think I and many others responded to in his portrayal of Peter Banning.
But how does the film hold up now, as an adult? I tried my best to put my intense nostalgia for the picture aside on the most recent rewatch, and its shortcomings indeed became more apparent. For one thing it’s way too long. At 144 minutes this thing is overstuffed with too many beginnings and endings, and Spielberg’s sense of pacing is way off—in hindsight, it’s impressive that this movie held my attention so closely as a youngster. The first encounter between Peter and Hook is shockingly anticlimactic, and all the air is let out of the picture as it just kind of moseys on until Banning gets thrown off the Jolly Roger.
There’s a weird discrepancy between the various characters, too. The darkly comic scenes between Hook and Smee sometimes feel like they’re from an entirely different movie, while Peter’s sequences with the Lost Boys—at least at first—verge on melodrama. And Julia Roberts is woefully miscast as Tinkerbell, with the actress struggling to imbue the performance with a sense of mischief and coming up short.
There’s also the fact that this story makes very little sense. When Peter returns to the real world, Spielberg shows Hoskins as a street-sweeper, attempting to suggest that the entire Neverland sequence could potentially be explained away as an extended dream. But so many other factors (the kids’ memories, Wendy’s belief that Neverland is real, etc.) “prove” all this actually happened, so the dream implications just come off as confusing.
So yeah, objectively, Hook has some serious problems. And yet, as I was watching it again, I couldn’t stop a smile from stretching across my face as the Lost Boys began their “Rufiooooo!” chant, or as Thud Butt turned himself into a ball and knocked over a series of pirates, or as Peter finally found his Happy Thought and flew across the sky to John Williams’ soaring theme. This movie, objectively, is not great, but the wonder of it all that so enraptured me as a kid never left me.
It’s an odd feeling, really. As someone who watches and analyzes films for a living, I’m certainly more discerning now than I was as a kid, and I’m able to see why critics—and Spielberg himself—kind of hated Hook, but in a bit of a parallel to Peter’s journey in the film, this rush of feelings came flooding back to me upon rewatch. Suddenly I remembered why I was so obsessed with Hook in the first place, and why it made such a strong impression. Suddenly I was a kid again.
Nostalgia is tricky. It can color one’s perception so deeply that it becomes impossible to see things objectively. But there’s something about Hook that almost transcends nostalgia. There’s a reason this movie was absolutely adored by kids when it hit theaters despite widespread critical disdain, and there’s a reason it endures today. Is Hook a good movie? Not really. But even as I see its flaws in abundant clarity, they don’t negate the fact that this movie makes me happy. Really, seriously happy, silly storytelling be damned. That’s something that can’t—and shouldn’t—be lost.