AGAINST THE GRAIN: Hook (1991)

Peter Pan faces middle-age in one of Steven Spielberg’s most divisive movies. Oscar goes on the defensive.

Hook is one of those love it or hate it films, and I was gladly taken in by the movie. Upon first hearing of it as a child, I was confused and somewhat annoyed by the idea of Peter Pan – the boy who never grew up – growing up. It seemed a very depressing notion. But I underestimated Steven Spielberg and his own rich imagination for this story. I believe the film’s real question is not, “What if Peter Pan grew up?” but “Can you be a better adult with the upbeat heart of a child?” Spielberg’s answer: yes… and that’s okay!

Peter Banning (Robin Williams) is a workaholic corporate lawyer who’s become distant from his family, acting aloof and forgetting his son’s sports games. Peter, his wife Moira (Caroline Goodall) and the children visit their grandmother, Wendy Darling (Maggie Smith), to attend an opening of a children’s hospital in her name. Soon after, the children are taken away by a malevolent force, and Banning receives a letter from Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) demanding his presence at Neverland. Wendy reveals that Banning, who has forgotten his entire childhood, is in fact Peter Pan, much to his disbelief. He is visited by Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) who insists he is Peter Pan and whisks him away to Neverland to rescue his children.

Peter awakens there and discovers that Hook is holding his kids hostage in order to duel Mr. Pan one last time. Hook is dismayed that his old adversary has become a feeble and incompetent old man, but Tink promises to prepare him for the duel within three days. In Pan’s absence, the Lost Boys have gained a new leader, the cocky and brash Rufio (Dante Basco), and they don’t believe Tink and Peter at first. While the Lost Boys reluctantly train Peter for the role of Pan, Hook and Smee (Bob Hoskins) plot to make the children love the Captain as their father as a final form of revenge.

The actors assembled do a fantastic job. Williams captures the cynicism and vulnerability of Banning and the childlike energy and courage of Peter Pan, providing a very emotional performance. Dame Smith brings an incredible gravitas and sweetness to the role of Wendy. Roberts as Tinkerbell, though, is where I have to agree with the common consensus; she plays Tink a bit too sweet-natured and has an old school crush on Peter. Accepting the fact that Tinkerbell is not supposed to talk, I do think she turns in a likeable performance. Hoffman is simply a blast as Captain Hook, chewing the scenery in pantomime fashion, laughing and smirking villainously. Yet he still has a more sinister side due to making Peter’s children resent him. Hoskins is possibly my favourite live-action Smee – he’s affably bumbling and has the funniest lines and reactions to Hoffman’s antics; the two villains steal the show every time. As for the kids, Amber Scott is really cute as Maggie and Charlie Korsmo is enjoyable as Jack and has serious acting chops. Basco was a badass as Rufio, and the other Lost Boys are enjoyably mischievous, funny and credible, with a few exceptions that come off as a bit wooden or brattish.

Two elements that distinguish Hook from other kid’s movies are the quality of the visuals and the soundtrack. The score by John Williams is one of his finest ever, famously soaring to epic heights filled with triumphant horns and heart-warming flute and piano movements, even weaving mystery and sinister cues around Captain Hook. It really does capture the fun and spirit of Peter Pan. The cinematography by Dean Cundey is simply gorgeous, invoking the bright and warm colour palette of the Disney film and the imaginative quality of Neverland. The matte paintings are incredibly detailed and colourful, passing the test of time nicely and holding up better than the plethora of digitally-generated backgrounds. It’s often said that Neverland, for all its intricate design, does feel staged and theatrical. And yet, I feel that’s part of the charm, invoking the theatre tradition of Pan which Spielberg honours. We don’t see much of Neverland apart from the Lost Boy’s hideout, the pirate town, and the Jolly Roger, so it can seem quite limited. Elsewhere, the flight scenes with Williams hold up surprisingly well; I can believe he truly is flying. When it comes to the action, it is played up in an exuberant if childish fashion, but it still keeps that vital levity until Pan squares off against Hook one last time.

It’s easy to mistake Hook for a live-action sequel to the original Disney classic in its homages to that version. We have the shot of Peter flying against a celestial body; the use of shadows to show characters talking; Wendy’s singing which warms the hearts of the pirates is echoed by Maggie’s singing on Hook’s ship; the costumes of Captain Hook and Peter Pan bear a strong resemblance to their animated counterparts; the mermaids are typical mermaids; the presentation of Smee as Hook’s caretaker before stealing his treasure; and the final shot with the Darling and Banning families panning out to shots of London. However, it stands apart from the Disney original by invoking the original J.M. Barrie story and showing Pan’s past in flashback, and it’s different enough not to be seen as a retread. I found myself enjoying the various references to the Barrie classic, including a jokey use of clapping to revive fairies, the idea that Neverland is fuelled by the imagination of children, the phrase “to live will be an awfully big adventure,” and that Neverland makes you forget your life in the real world. I liked the idea that the adventures of Peter and Wendy were translated into book form by Barrie. There is a romantic element between Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, building up on the strong affection between their novel counterparts, but it seems to amount to little beyond mere reference. Hook’s phobia of ticking clocks mirrors the fear of his inevitable demise or “the ticking clock” symbolising death. Despite his efforts to stave off mortality, Hook meets his end with an unfulfilled life, while Peter abandons immortality in Neverland for a life of growing old with his family, choosing to live to the fullest.

On some level, the story of Peter Banning is metatextual one for Spielberg himself. Banning has no interest in his children, denying them their childhood excitement and love for adventure, fun and excitement. It highlights how removed Peter is from his Pan persona when he cannot comprehend such facets of a child’s reality. Before he can save the children from the very real danger that is Hook, he must embrace the world kids inhabit as well as recognising the importance of that time in our lives. Spielberg realised the weight of being a parent for the first time when he was making Hook, and it’s reflected in the movie, setting the ideal for himself and for others. The last line of the movie is the aforementioned “To live would be an awfully big adventure,” and I believe that it invites grown-ups to think of their lives as something a little more romantic and adventurous, if not for themselves then for their children. Don’t throw out your childhood, build upon it!

Sometimes, the script can come across as a tad corny and childish, especially with an old Tootles searching around the house saying that he’s “lost his marbles.” When Banning’s being tossed around by the Neverland denizens, it sometimes seems cartoonish, helped by Williams’ comedic quirks in the part. It’s also pretty bizarre to see such 90s affectations as skateboarding and basketball in the Lost Boys’ lair, dating the movie to a certain extent. The whimsical tone can often go overboard and becomes very cheesy, especially when Peter and the Lost Boys trade insults and later defeat the pirates, putting more serious-minded people off. I also found the Lost Boy Thudbutt being the subject of many “fat” jokes to be a tad obnoxious. The film also begs the question: how did Hook capture Jack and Maggie? How did Smee get hold of Peter’s medical records and learn about the children’s misgivings towards their father? How is Peter able to remember his thoughts from when he was a baby? It all goes unexplained, and the film honestly works best when you don’t try to apply logic and reason to it. If you’re the sort of person who cannot stand such glaring plot holes in addition to the layers of cheese, this won’t be for you.

The concept that Peter Pan grows up could alienate some, but honestly, that it their loss because Hook is a quintessential family film. The clichés and plot holes are distracting, but the actors carry the story, the effects hold up well, the action and comedy is a lot of fun, and there’s enough reverence for the source material to please fans of the book and the Disney film. Hook is a very fun movie and I hope future generations are able to appreciate it on that level, forgiving some seriously corny moments.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • When the Bannings fly to England, the pilot’s voice is that of Dustin Hoffman  – “This is your captain speaking…”
  • Bob Hoskins bought beer for 300+ extras after a lengthy and complicated scene was cut.
  • The kissing couple who begin to float when some fairy dust lands on them are actually George Lucas and Carrie Fisher in a cameo.
  • Julia Roberts was nicknamed “Tinkerhell” because she was difficult to deal with.

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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