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Dissecting the Classics – Hook

August 4, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

I’m shameless when it comes to tying a movie into a recent release. Well. Almost. This week’s big release is Christopher Robin, a movie which is laser focused for tapping into our shared cultural nostalgia for beloved childhood characters and probably making m-I mean “us” cry. But I just can’t bring myself to review a Winnie the Pooh movie. Most are either very good or kind of bad and their primary audience is four years old. So, not really the type of thing you put under tight scrutiny. But the basic idea of Christopher Robin is one that recalls a very specific movie.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics. In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.


Wide Release Date: December 11, 1991
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Written By: Jim V. Hart and Malia Scotch Marmo
Produced By: Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall and Gerald R. Molen
Cinematography By: Dean Cundey
Edited By: Michael Kahn
Music By: John Williams
Production Company: Amblin Entertainment
Distributed By: TriStar Pictures
Robin Williams as Peter Banning/Peter Pan
Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell
Dustin Hoffman as Captain James Hook
Bob Hoskins as Mr. Smee

What Do We All Know?

So, here’s something I’m actually kind of surprised by; critical reception to Hook is far worse than I would have ever imagined, with only 29% of Rotten Tomatoes critics giving the film a positive review. Now, I’m not oblivious to the fact that I enjoy Hook primarily because I watched it a lot as a kid and my tastes weren’t particularly sophisticated. But even without those nostalgia glasses on, I don’t think the movie is worthy of the sheer vitriol that contemporary critics had for it. Well, obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t be covering this movie. Still, I was just kind of taken aback by just how negative the reception is when I started doing background research for this. And I’m baffled by Steven Spielberg’s own contempt for the movie, troubled production notwithstanding.

Well, I’m here to argue that Hook is not as bad as its reputation might lead one to believe. It’s not a great film by any stretch, and it’s also one where it’s easy to understand why it won’t attract the praises of everyone. Primarily because it’s very, very silly. But it’s also a movie where Spielberg uses a children’s literature icon to make manifest the constant theme in nearly all of his movies; reminding all of us to see the world with the wonder we had as children. And since I’m nothing if not a film critic stuck in nostalgia-driven arrested development, I’m going to talk about the ups and downs of a movie that helped shape me as a kid.

What Went Right?

Like most Spielberg blockbusters, Hook has a simple but innately compelling premise: what if Peter Pan chose to grow up? J.M. Barrie’s flying, swashbuckling hero is probably literature’s most famous symbol of childhood, and his exploits have been adapted numerous times to film and television. But Spielberg and screenwriters Hart and Marmo found a new take on the story, taking Peter Pan from a literal child to the child in all of us. “Peter Banning” is married with kids of his own, but is also more concerned with his career than either of them. If there’s anybody who needs some childlike wonder in his life, it’s this guy.

And they had the perfect actor for the job in Robin Williams, a talent who could easily switch from Banning to Pan without straining believability. Williams was a great, once in a lifetime talent and whatever you think of the rest of the film, you can’t deny he does a hell of a job with this material. His early characterization as an absent father who aggressively cuts off the imagination of his kids seems counterintuitive, but he rides the line between a total asshole and a guy who just needs to get his priorities in order. The story arc with his kids is disregarded by some as too saccharine, but I find it to be the strongest element of the story. Jack (Charlie Korsmo) is sympathetic and really sells the effects of Peter’s negligence and has good chemistry with Williams and with Dustin Hoffman, the man playing the title character.

Captain James Hook sets the plot in motion by kidnapping Peter’s children, and while it’s probably hyperbolic to have his name as the title, he is a spectacular antagonist. Hoffman is clearly having fun hamming it up in a role that is bragadocious, witty and often quite funny. He’s also menacing to the target audience (children), and the script smartly has him give Jack the attention he always wanted to play up the primary tension. And the movie also showcases Hook’s various complexities; his fatalism, his need to be challenged, his obsession with good form. I’ve always been fond of Hook as an antagonist and he’s well represented here.

While Hoffman and Williams do most of the heavy lifting, it’s hardly a two man show. Bob Hoskins is perfectly cast as Mr. Smee, Maggie Smith brings a lot to the role of an aged Wendy Darling, Caroline Goodall has a short but important role as Peter’s wife Moira, and Dante Basco’s Rufio has certainly made an impression as a “cool” version of Peter who’s a little more ’90’s. And screw the haters; I think Julia Roberts is charming as Tinkerbell. Most of the time. And while the various lost boys are hit or miss, Spielberg does have an eye for child actors and James Madio and Raushan Hamond do solid work in their increased roles.

A story set in Neverland needs more than just a good cast. Hook stands out to me today as a film that would have been very different even a decade later. The sets for Hook’s ship and the surrounding town have a great atmosphere filled with colorful extras. The anachronistic baseball game the pirates host for Jack makes sense in the story but is still such a bizarre and memorable scene. On the other side, the Lost Boys’ sets feel like a mix of Lord of the Flies and a skate park, a very different set from the pirate ship yet fitting nicely into the aesthetic. There’s also the inside of the tree, a nod to the original story that probably wouldn’t have worked in this interpretation.

All of these are practical sets and usually have matte paintings as backgrounds, which is something that would be heavily CGI today. I’m not against this approach, but I do appreciate the craftsmanship that went into this movie’s environments. And while I’m giving credit to behind the scenes talent that creates the atmosphere, I’ve got to give a nod to John Williams. Williams has another sweeping, adventurous score here, but I think his finest moment may be the jazzy theme that plays over one of the earliest scenes. As ever, Williams elevates another Spielberg movie.

What Went Wrong?

I’m not going to pretend like this is one of Spielberg’s best movies. But I have a suspicion that the overall negative reaction from contemporary critics was because it was a lesser Spielberg film and people were just ready to take out their vitriol on a film that is sappy, cheesy and artificial as most of his previous work, but isn’t as good as a Jaws or a Raiders of the Lost Ark. And if you aren’t the sort to buy into Hook based on its premise, it won’t win you over. But I think it mostly leans toward being average, and your tolerance for the genre and amount of nostalgia will affect whether you like or dislike the movie.

But I think the biggest problem with the movie is Maggie Banning. She’s precocious and occasionally funny thanks to the script, but the actress is out of her depth and comes across as fake even in profoundly artificial movie. She provides one important function plot-wise (Peter goes to her play but not Jack’s baseball game), but I think the movie really could have been better without her. And while this isn’t her fault, the song “When You’re Alone” isn’t very good, a leftover from when the movie was slated to be a musical. It should have been cut.

And In Summary…

Hook is one of the lower quality movies I’ve covered here. It’s silly and uneven and definitely flawed. But it’s also entertaining, ambitious and carries an emotional punch a movie this cheesy shouldn’t be able to carry. And it’s near and dear to my heart, one of those movies that I grew up on and will always enjoy watching. After all, it’s a Peter Pan movie, and as long as I refuse to grow up entirely, a part of me will always love it.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks, Goodfellas, The Avengers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, Jaws, The Omen, The Incredibles, Life of Brian, Escape From New York, Independence Day, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

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