Never Neverland
Matt Connolly on Hook

One can never really traverse the chasm of understanding and knowledge that separates your present-day self from the child who first fell in love with a given film. It becomes less a stand-alone aesthetic object than a repository for sensations and memories long gone. The mind notes the litany of narrative faults, visual shortcomings, and ideological groaners, but the heart can still feel the warm glow of nostalgia emanating from given scenes and frames: a Proustian reflection of past experience in which the image cannot be divorced from the precious, lost moments in which one first witnessed it. This is all to say that, while I eagerly anticipated revisiting a childhood favorite, it didn’t come as a shock to discover that, upon repeat viewing, Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991) isn’t that great of a movie. It’s bloated, frequently unfunny, and curiously listless. Those little moments that had stuck out in my mind from childhood (the strange, multicolored glop that the Lost Boys fling at one another at dinner; Smee marching toward the pirate ship to return Captain Hook’s freshly sharpened eponymous appendage) now lacked any real resonance. I felt the intellectual recognition of an image viewed long ago, but not the emotional jolt that so often comes with excavating the artifacts of youth. One can argue that expecting so specific a response says more about my own idiosyncratic desires than Spielberg’s movie.

For all the personal baggage brought to the film—and, in a sense, because of it—I suspect my failed bid at rekindling memories speaks to a fundamental failing in Hook. If ever there were a film that seems designed to speak to viewers’ sense of bygone youthful joy, shouldn’t it be a film about a jaded, adult Peter Pan rediscovering the glories of play and adventure in Neverland? And if one had to pick a director to helm such a film, wouldn’t the ideal choice be Spielberg, perhaps our most celebrated chronicler of childhood awe and terror? It’s not that Hook doesn’t deliver a sizable helping of boys-will-be-boys hijinks and tearful reconciliations with the child within. What’s missing is the real insight and the specificity of those experiences that one finds across Spielberg’s oeuvre. Watching Hook, you can almost feel the burden of expectation weighing heavily on its shoulders, and the director accepting its yoke with dutiful professionalism. The film has all the trappings of an archetypal Spielberg classic: fast-paced action spectacle; literal and figurative flights of fancy; the yearning for familial wholeness and the unearthing of youthful energy. That’s the problem. It’s a simulacrum of Spielberg wonder.

From the beginning, the film banks heavily on the viewer’s past associations with both J. M. Barrie’s text and Spielberg’s oeuvre—sometimes to evocative effect. The opening shots reveal a series of children in close-up, their faces alight with wonder as they sit in theater seats and gaze off-screen. Before we even get a sense of what holds them rapt, the time spent lingering on their cherubic countenances tells us that we have entered a Spielbergian realm, where childhood wonder is both considered and created. We soon turn to the stage show at hand: a grade-school Peter Pan. The young stars deliver a charmingly halting rendition of the scene in which Wendy discovers Peter crying on her bedroom floor. Cinematographer Dean Cundey’s camera oscillates between the children onstage and the parents in the audience, their faces bathed in the soft blue light of the darkened auditorium. Peter Pan is all about the pleasures of childhood and the poignant inevitability of its end. By framing the story as a performance to be viewed simultaneously across ages, Spielberg illuminates the layered resonance of Barrie’s text. The child’s dreams of escapist adventure lives alongside the parent’s poignant resignation of lost youth.

The sound of a cell phone’s shrill ring interrupts the show, as Peter Banning (Robin Williams) attempts to quietly negotiate a meeting with daughter Maggie (Amber Scott) continues to perform onstage as Wendy and wife Moira (Caroline Goodall) and son Jack (Charlie Korsmo) look on with exasperation. The diegetic interruption doubles as a warning to the viewer that the film’s brief, beguiling spell will soon be broken. A workaholic corporate lawyer, Peter constantly puts professional duties before familial obligations. We see this in practice a few scenes later, when Peter dallies at the office and predictably misses Jack’s big baseball game. (The film’s sketching of corporate life, including a jocular round of cell-phone quick-draw, couldn’t have felt any fresher in 1991 than it does now.) The family soon travels to London to visit Moira’s grandmother, Wendy Darling (Maggie Smith), whose youth purportedly acted as the inspiration for Barrie’s books. Just how faithfully the author chronicled Wendy’s adventures soon becomes clear when Jack and Wendy are mysteriously kidnapped in the middle of the night. As Wendy explains to Peter, the children have been abducted by the minions of Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman), and he must travel to Neverland to retrieve them. Banning is, in fact, Peter Pan, though he has long since forgotten his past life after falling in love with Moira and leaving the land of perennial childhood adventure behind for the adult world for marriage, parentage, and stodgy professionalism. The incredulous Peter initially dismisses Wendy’s story, but eventually journeys to Neverland after the arrival of old friend Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts).

Given the film’s deluge of exposition, it’s perhaps not surprising that Hook’s first half-hour feels a little sluggish and perfunctory, despite its occasional beauty. Spielberg finds some of his most inspired visual moments in the large Darling household. The camera follows Peter and his family through the sprawling abode in elegant, unfussy tracking shots. Jack and Maggie’s bedroom, meanwhile, becomes a prime showcase for the director’s signature shafts of blinding light, which emanate through the large glass doors that Peter Pan famously sailed through in Barrie’s book. These scenes seemingly prime the pump for the more elaborate wonders to come.

In a demoralizing irony, it’s the film’s arrival in Neverland that cues the sharpest drop in enchantment. Soon after being plopped down by Tinkerbell near Hook’s ship, Peter confronts his old nemesis by offering him a check in exchange for the return of his children. Hook prepares to kill them all, until Tinkerbell convinces him to let Peter enliven his aging body and imagination, and give Hook the opportunity to confront his old nemesis in better form. She brings Peter to his former crew of Lost Boys, who agree to whip Peter into shape for his confrontation with the captain. What follows is a fairly routine cycle of training montages and adolescent horseplay, spiked with some limp stabs at hipness. The Lost Boys’ basketball games and skateboarding jaunts through winding forest paths feel less like organic updates than calculated youth-market panders, while a series of visual jokes surrounding one kid’s largeness vacillates between cartoony good fun and mean-spirited laziness. The entirety of the Lost Boys’ sequences, in fact, have a slightly stale feel, the muddy browns of the visual palette and familiar joshing of the child actors edging pretty closely into Goonies territory. Then there’s those just-plain-weird celebrity cameos, including Glenn Close, in a bit of proto–Albert Nobbs drag, as a bearded sailor who gets tossed in a locked chest with a scorpion after doubting Hook’s judgment. This mixture of winking self-awareness with the film’s later earnestness comes off more as Spielberg covering his demographic bases than furthering any aesthetic or emotional vision.

This tonal unease manifests in the lead performances. Hoffman moves between forced camp and mild embarrassment throughout. Sporting the iconic mane of black curls and waxed moustache, he engages in bits of nostril-flaring theatrics while stopping well short of the lip-smacking extravagance that might have made the role feel less like an afterthought. Williams shows a surprising amount of restraint throughout. Years after Hook’s release, Spielberg publicly regretted not encouraging Williams to indulge in his usual array of improvisational shtick. This turn away from his pun-a-minute performance style actually helps Hook, to a point. In a film that too often swerves between easy self-awareness and underdeveloped sentiment, Williams’s straightforward sketching of Peter’s journey from buttoned-down worrywart to rejuvenated free spirit gives the film a legible emotional through line. A scene in which the creatively constipated Peter finally lets his imagination run wild and sees the banquet of heretofore invisible food laid out before him offers a rare jolt of genuine delight. Of course, Hook is as much about Peter’s adult responsibilities as his childhood adventures. Williams’s performance loses steam when required to make these supposedly reconciled sides of Peter equally vivid. The rest of the cast remains largely undistinguished. Hoskins mutters and putters forgettably, while Roberts seems present largely to provide delighted reaction shots to the Lost Boys’ antics.

Well, that, and for the moment when Tinkerbell finally confesses her long-harbored crush on Peter. It’s a subplot (in the screenplay by James V. Hart and Malia Scotch Marmo, with screen story by Hart and Nick Castle) that never finds its footing, popping up intermittently without quite integrating into the film’s principal concerns. These brief scenes of would-be chemistry between Williams and Roberts do provide a crucial insight into the stranger, darker film Hook might have been: an aging Tinkerbell pining for some combination of the boy she once knew and the man now standing before her; the blurring of youthful friendship and mature sexuality felt within their brief lip-lock. This commingling of past and present occurs throughout Hook. Think of the way in which Wendy’s adolescent ardor for Peter has been channeled into maternal care, and how that spark of youthful affection bubbles provocatively to the surface in a lengthy two-shot between Smith and Williams early in the film. And then there’s Stockholm Syndrome–esque subplot that finds Hook becoming a mentor to Jack, who harbors deep resentment toward Peter for his lack of parental care. This plugs directly into the Spielbergian motif of a boy’s search to replace missing or deficient father, seen in films ranging from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) to Catch Me If You Can (2002). Hook becomes the ideal alternative for Jack precisely because he (falsely) recasts himself as everything Peter used to be: fun-loving, supportive, full of life. It’s one of the film’s few potent ironies that Hook’s performance of paternal affection prompts Peter to introspection over his failures as a parent.

Why does Spielberg make such moments the intriguing whitecaps in a largely serene sea of easy nostalgia and pat solutions? Again and again, Hook offers sunny reconciliations for the conflicts its more complicated scenarios present (scenarios Barrie did not shy away from). Peter’s major predicament throughout most of the film lies in his inability to fly. The Lost Boys insist that conjuring one happy thought is all it takes for him to begin soaring through the air. What finally gets him off the ground is remembering his children: a rekindling of youthful energy through mature experience that is not without sentimental elegance, but which closes off much of what makes the film potentially compelling. The film’s conclusion serves up a laundry list of male boomer wish-fulfillment. You can be an overgrown kid and a responsible parent! You can blow off professional responsibility and maintain an upper middle class life! You can kiss Julia Roberts and go home to your wife guilt-free! Spielberg has too often been used accused of offering tidy, emotionally streamlined conclusions, with critics ignoring the melding of melancholy and ecstasy seen in films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T., and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). Here, that critique is all too apt. Given that the film’s ideas about childhood, nostalgia, and the search for wholeness seem so firmly within Spielberg’s wheelhouse, the failure becomes all the more acute.

Discussing a film so invested in the vagaries of bygone youthful experiences and the possibility of their resurrection inevitably leads me back to my own relationship to Hook. A onetime infatuation, it now rests within the regrettable pile of childhood media objects whose evocative glow grows dimmer and more rusted upon closer inspection. What did I see in Hook all those years ago? Unlike Peter, I cannot journey back to the Neverland of my youth and observe what sensory impressions so hooked me for such a short but intense moment. I can only gaze in somewhat dismayed befuddlement at this sporadically inspired, mostly confused film, and trust that it once provided my younger self some kind of pleasure. It’s sad enough when something that once gave you joy now only inspires longing. It’s a far stranger, emptier feeling when such an encounter evokes not the ache of nostalgia, but the hollow realization that there wasn’t much there to begin with.