Hook (USA, 1991)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, Bob Hoskins

Every so often a film reviewer will find themselves swimming against the tide of public opinion when it comes to a highly popular mainstream release. Few of us desire to embody the stereotype of critics as aloof, pompous and out of touch with what audiences want - such a stereotype does nothing for either the critical profession or the industry which supports it. But then again, what is the point of criticism if we aren't prepared to occasionally dig in our heels and fight our corner, whether we paint ourselves as the lone voice of reason or merely one opinion among many?
From this point of view, Hook is a perfect storm of public opinion. It's directed by one of Hollywood's most famous and widely-loved directors, it's based on an equally cherished and revered source material, it's old enough to generate mass nostalgia on the internet, and the public have consistently found it a better and more enjoyable film than the critics who first passed judgement on it. In the face of such widespread appreciation, it is tempting to just let this one slide and turn it into an opportunity to unite otherwise fractious fans. But well-meaning denial can only go so far before the truth comes out: Hook is utterly dreadful, and it would be Steven Spielberg's worst film, if only 1941 did not exist.
One clue to this which is unsurprisingly brushed under the carpet by the film's fans is that Spielberg himself has long been a critic of the film, just as he has been with 1941. The extent of his disappointment in it has varied over the years: in 2011 he told Entertainment Weekly that there were "parts of Hook I love" (everything up to Peter's departure to Neverland), while just two years later he told BBC Radio 5 Live: "I so don't like that movie, and I'm hoping someday I'll see it again and perhaps like some of it." What is consistent from year to year is Spielberg's admission that it was not his finest hour as a director. That in and of itself is not enough to signify that the film is terrible, but it is highly suggestive given Spielberg's long-term passion for the project and his long-standing interest in Peter Pan as a character.
Hook has two major problems which are fatally intertwined. One is the inadequacy of the story itself, which takes a potential-laden concept and makes the smallest possible amount out of it, ending in a massive and thoroughly illogical anticlimax. The other is Spielberg's lack of confidence in the material or his ability, and the resulting lack of control over the film's visual design and narrative progression. Either of these flaws on their own could have resulted in a disappointing film, but not a disaster on this scale; Spielberg's record as a popcorn crowd-pleaser suggests that in other circumstances he could have turned something shallow into great fun, or brought depth to a manic situation. But instead of merely going off half-cocked, Hook is a double-barrelled failure, which is neither fun enough nor interesting enough to sustain its bloated running time.
Spielberg had been developing a Peter Pan project for years, flirting with the idea of casting Michael Jackson in a musical version or doing a live-action take similar in tone to the Disney film from 1953. He abandoned the project in 1985 when his first child was born, and refused to revisit it after making Empire of the Sun two years later. By this time the script had been re-tooled by James V. Hart, after his son showed him a drawing of Captain Hook escaping the crocodile. By the time Spielberg came back on board after wrapping Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the film had changed from a straight adaptation into an unofficial sequel, with Peter being styled after Hart's ageing baby boomer friends on Wall Street.
Had Spielberg done a complete volte-face at this point and resurrected his original project (i.e. a straight retelling of Peter Pan), there is little doubt that it would have been a great film. Whatever you may think about his concessions to sentimentality, Spielberg has always had a knack for capturing childlike wonder and bringing a sense of magic to the screen. Equally, many of his films explore the relationship between parents and children, with fantasy often playing a part; he'd already tackled the subject with aliens in E.T. and Christian mythology in Last Crusade, so doing it with pirates and fairies isn't too much of a stretch. In the end, it is Spielberg's sentimentality that sinks Hook - or more precisely, his tendency to resort to it far too easily before he has done the hard work to justify it or make it meaningful.
The premise of Hook is packed with potential - the idea of Peter Pan growing up, "putting childish ways behind him" (in the words of St Paul) and forgetting who he was in doing so. The only decent parts of the whole film are the early scenes, with Peter going through the motions of adult life and missing all the important moments in his children's formative years in order to secure business deals. Right up until the moment when the children go missing, we're settling into a fairly run-of-the-mill film about what it truly means to be a child.
After that, however, the film constantly skirts around both this notion and its own central premise. Whenever Spielberg has to confront the issue, he tries to wriggle out of it, either by setting up an ineffective joke (Peter writing Hook a cheque, or threatening him with lawyers) or by cutting to something irrelevant. Just as we get no hint of Peter's past self and abilities breaking through into the adult world he inhabits, so the Neverland scenes rely heavily on us being impressed by the Temple of Doom-esque sets to distract from the lack of well-written characters inhabiting them. Any sense of magic or wonder feels forced upon us, rather than emerging naturally as a response to what we are being shown.
Spielberg himself admitted that the sets were a big problem, claiming in a recent interview with Empire magazine: "I didn't quite know what I was doing and I tried to paint over my insecurity with production value... the more insecure I felt about it, the bigger and more colourful the sets became." This focus on style means that all the important bits of exposition about Wendy's stories and the Lost Boys are rattled through in a manner which borders on contempt, as though all Spielberg wanted to do was shoot another bit of slapstick or another annoying child moaning about something. Even the famous food-fight scene is badly assembled, with the dialogue feeling like lazy improvisation and the effects coming across as needlessly garish.
Roger Ebert put it best when he wrote in The Chicago Sun-Times: "The sad thing about the screenplay for Hook is that it's so correctly titled: this whole construction is really nothing more than a hook on which to hang a new version of the Peter Pan story." There are very occasional flashes of intrigue about Hook as a character, especially his loss of purpose when Peter is unable to fly or fight him. With just a little more effort, we could have got a genuinely fascinating examination of how good and evil need each other to have purpose - think of Batman and the Joker, or Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty. Spielberg could even have used his ongoing interest in family to examine the subtext of the original story - namely that Hook is the extrapolated version of Mr Darling (and is often played by the same actor, in a tradition dating back to the original play). At bottom, he represents all the worst aspects of authority, order and parental tyranny once childhood innocence, joy and curiosity have been purged away.
What we get instead is two hours of ill-directed hamminess from Dustin Hoffman in one of the strangest and worst performances of his career. Unless his best work, Hoffman is largely working from the outside in here, making himself look as wacky and grotesque as possible and then sleepwalking his way through the film via a mix of odd intonation and endless mugging to the camera. Hook's motivation is a complete muddle: he promises a great war, but why now? Had he simply forgotten about Pan? Did he plan to surprise Pan when he was an adult so he could win - and if so, why is he surprised about his adversary being so incompetent? Faced with such a lack of logic or direction, he becomes an indulgent pantomime dame, and his death feels like a complete and idiotic afterthought.
The other performances in Hook are equally underwhelming. Robin Williams may be better here than in some of his more serious roles - Patch Adams springs to mind - but even his funnier scenes feel forced: he feels like a grown man learning to be immature, rather than rediscovering a sense of wonder. Julia Roberts - who fell out with Spielberg on the set - is equally off-putting, coming across like she doesn't want to be there and that the character is utterly beneath her. Even the reliable Bob Hoskins and Maggie Smith aren't given enough to do: the latter is confined to exposition, while the former has none of the energy or invention that he brought to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? three years earlier.
Even if you attempt to enjoy Hook as nothing more than a series of set-pieces, the film is still found wanting when weighed in the balance. Some of the set-pieces simply have no place being in a Peter Pan story: the baseball game contributes nothing to the plot and is a scandalous Americanisation of the novel for no good reason. All of the sword-fighting choreography is based around the same two or three moves repeated ad nauseum, and any fleetingly fun moments (such as the barrel-rolling child) are run into the ground very quickly. The sets are so overblown and chaotic that is it hard to keep track of what is happening, and the emotional moments which take place within the brief lulls feel contrived and decidedly false. It's as much of a directionless theme park ride as the Pirates of the Caribbean films - and at least the first one of those was passingly funny.
Hook is an unequivocal disaster which could under other circumstances have shipwrecked Spielberg's career for good. It edges out over 1941 by virtue of having an interesting idea or two buried deep beneath its obvious excess (whereas 1941 was stupid from the bottom to the top). The director's lack of focus or discipline, coupled with a half-baked and underwhelming screenplay, makes for a deeply depressing experience - one that hasn't aged well without the nostalgia goggles on. It remains one of the worst films of the 1990s, and a low point in the careers of all concerned.

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