By John H. Foote
During the first press screening of Hook (1991) I remember spending a great deal of the time shaking my head in disgust. When the film was over I felt nothing but relief, but oddly could not move from my seat.
I hated it. On so many levels I hated the film.
I still hate it. Hook represents to me the worst film of Steven Spielberg’s impressive career. The man has not made many weak films, but Hook is atrocious, a car wreck of a movie. Cluttered, noisy, pointless, with no story, just a mess unlike anything he has made, before or since.
Steven Spielberg is to me, among the greatest filmmakers in the history of the cinema, easily the finest storyteller. His evolution into that was thrilling to watch, but even more interesting was the fact he continued to grow, to evolve after great success, after the Academy Awards. He has never played it safe; he has always taken risks.
I love the work of Steven Spielberg, but I hated Hook, on a level even I do not fully understand, for so many logical reasons I cannot quite believe the depth of my anger, of my hatred for this noisy, terrible film. For months I had been looking forward to seeing this film because it was Spielberg, with Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, and Dustin Hoffman, a killer cast with a world class director. Mind you, Spielberg had struggled in the few years previous. I was not a fan of The Color Purple (1985) which had a zip-a-dee-doo-dah feel to it, washing away the anger and rage that was in the book. Always (1989) had some lovely moments in it, Holly Hunter was sublime, especially in her portrayal of grief, but never caught on with either audiences or critics, so Spielberg was in need of a hit. His franchise films, the Indiana Jones films were huge hits, but his personal films were failing. As good as Empire of the Sun (1987) was, is, it failed at the box office despite being a masterpiece.
He had considered a filming of the Barrie book, a live action telling of the story, which had not been done before on film (but was, finally, and beautifully in 2003) and with his childlike innocence seemed the perfect director to do it. Pop star Michael Jackson heard about it and petitioned to play Peter which would have been grotesque, but then a script dropped into Spielberg’s’ lap with stars attached and, unfortunately, a director as well. However, when Spielberg wants to direct a film, they are going to let him, so the other filmmaker was paid off (unhappily) to walk away and Spielberg began work Hook.
What astounds me is that great, creative minds that worked on the film, the writers, Spielberg, the producers and yet they collectively could not see that the weaknesses in the film were actually an easy fix. The film opens with promise as Peter Pan, now grown, a husband, father and lawyer, is unaware of his past, he has forgotten he was once Pan. But Hook has not, and reaches from Neverland to take Peter’s young children, Jack and Maggie, back to Neverland with him. When the very elderly Wendy (portrayed beautifully by Maggie Smith) tells him who he is, he does not believe her. Only when Tinker Bell comes to him does he even start to consider it, but she still has to knock him cold, sprinkle him with fairy dust and kidnap him to Neverland.
There is magic in the early scenes with a kooky old gent named Toodles, who wanders through Gran Wendy’s London mansion claiming he has lost his marbles. Yep, no question, he is loopy. Hair going every which way, wild eyed, and with no teeth, he does seem a tad…touched. Yet it is he who tells Peter after the kids are taken, he must learn to crow, to fight, to fly … Hook is back. Later in the film, when Peter has returned to Neverland to retrieve his kidnapped children, he encounters a boy named Thud who gives to him a bag of marbles that once belonged to Toodles, meaning this 10-year old boy once knew the now ancient Toodles.
So why not do this?
Would it not have been cool to see the old man go back to Neverland with Peter and Tinker Bell as sort of a guide, allowing Peter to see childlike wonder never needs to go away and for the lost boys to witness that growing old does mean you become pirate, but rather the same child-like wonder they possess as children can remain with one all through life if permitted? Imagine Toodles being reunited with Thud? Toodles has never forgotten Neverland, nor Peter, nor Captain Hook nor his marbles, which are not lost at all. Most of all he has not forgotten what it was to be a child, to play. Had that character returned to Neverland he would have been greeted with open arms which we cannot say of Peter, not until they find his smile. Toodles going home to Neverland changes the entire fabric of the story, for the better, and I cannot believe no one thought of that! It seems so easy.
The Neverland created for this film is a jungle of tropical trees, plants, wild colors, and creatures we hear but never see, with the pirate ship of Hook anchored near the city, which never sets sail, in fact, it never moves. Yet it is also a virtual theme park with tracks running through the jungle for the skateboards, and basketball nets everywhere. Someone tell me please, where the knowledge of such things came from?
Hook (Dustin Hoffman) is a speech impaired dandy, a fop, who demands red carpet be on each step as he descends, believes the men fear him and in many ways is one half of vaudeville act with Smee (Bob Hoskins) but also as Peter’s little girl tells him, “a very bad man.” The two actors have a great time when onscreen together, but when alone on screen, they are in trouble and Hoffman, one of the screens greatest actors has very little to do but pose looking foppish.
The Lost Boys are a gaggle of boys, noisy boys, led by a punk rocker named Ruffio, who calls himself “the Pan” as though he were a God. He is the leader, the best at everything but he cannot fly. He can skateboard and play basketball leaving us wondering when they learned to do that given they have not been in the modern world for many years, if they knew Toodles certainly beyond seventy years. Ruffio is lethal with a sword, a problem for Peter because he is not, despite having been so when he was Pan, sorry, “the Pan”. Hook gives the Lost Boys and Tinker Bell (Julia Roberts) three days to whip Peter into shape and make him remember who he is so they can have their war. Essentially what he has to do is find his happy thought.
Slowly he begins to play with the boys, using their imagination to find a feast of food and the inevitable food fight. It is here we first see Peter being wicked with a sword when Ruffio, in a snit throws a coconut at Peter without Peter seeing it. Warned he spins with a sword and cuts the thing in half, stunning the boys, Ruffio and most of all himself. But it is in a treehouse where Peter discovers and accepts who he once was, finding his happy thought. He wanted to be a father, and in Jack and Maggie he finds his happy thought. The thought of his kids has taken him into the air floating with joy, and when he realizes he is in the air, he panics and begins to fall, but catches himself at the last moment, thinks of his kids and smiles, that Peter Pan smile, before exploding into the day sky, taking flight. The Pan is back. That scene in the tree is the best in the entire film, we believe Williams is Pan. He plays with the boys, he teases them, he challenges them and finally Ruffio walks towards him with a sword. Is he going to strike? No, he falls to his knees and utters the words, “You are the Pan” and is at once a follower and powerful ally. And so they fight the pirates, and of course they win but at a terrible cost, Hook kills Ruffio. But then Pan kills Hook and returns his kids to their mother, leaving the enormous Thud in charge. It all happens very fast and without emotion. There is no mourning for Ruffio, none, and no one mourns Hook, whose body disappears, which no one questions. I mean … COME ON!
He returns the marbles to old delighted Toodles, who turns the bag upside down sprinkling himself with fairy dust and at once can fly, and where does he go? Where he should have gone in the first place, straight to Neverland, to his friends, to his childhood, to play because you are never too old to do so.
What a mess of a movie! What was Spielberg thinking? Yet beneath the garbage and swill, there was promise. Robin Williams was geared up to give a good performance, and strikes the pose of Peter Pan, hands on the hips, feet planted firmly even before he knows who he is. Very few actors can pull off flying on screen, but Williams does, he looks joyous in flight, and we believe he has found his happy thought. Yet the story fails him, the lost boys are noisy and annoying, not even cute. Julia Roberts is given nothing to do as Tinker Bell and plays it that way, bored, some vain attempts to look cute falling flat. The ship never moves, leaving us to ask why build such a perfect pirate ship and never leave the dock, the pirates are as dumb and noisy as the lost boys, shooting each other dead from time to time, stupid is as stupid does I guess.
We feel nothing for any one of the characters. Not one, I could have cared less if Hook had killed the kids, it just did not strike emotionally with me at all. How could they have gone so wrong? How could Spielberg have gone so far off the rails? He admits the shoot became a circus with constant visits to the set from other actors and directors, wanting to see the massive sets built in the studios. Not a frame of the film was shot outdoors, as the film took up nine massive soundstages on the lot. Spielberg wondered to himself more than once when arriving on set whether the shoot was getting out of control in the manner 1941 (1979) had. He had Julia Roberts behaving like a diva, actors wanting cameos in the film and getting them, and noise, noise, noise.
I sat there when the film ended stunned by what I had just seen, as horrified as I was the year before when I saw The Godfather Part III (1990).
In the years since I have seen the film again, I had children, they watched it as kids do, over and over and over. If the film was on when I entered the room, I would quickly leave unless the girls demanded I stay, which was often, so yes, I was punished many times watching this dreadful picture. What is astounding is that despite the critical drubbing the film took, it made money, a lot of money. That said Spielberg does not consider the film among his best, quite the opposite in fact. To give insight into how quickly things turn around in the film industry two years later he gave us Schindlers List (1993) and would win the Academy Award for Best Director. HIs career since then feels blessed, as though he can do no wrong, and he rarely has.
To twist a quote from the film’s villain, “I hate, I hate, I hate…Hook.”
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.