(for action/adventure violence, some language and name-calling, scatological humor, and adult themes)
Released: December 11, 1991
Runtime: 142 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, Charlie Korsmo, Maggie Smith, Julia Roberts, Bob Hoskins
It’s telling how perceptions of some movies change over time.
In the case of Hook, Steven Spielberg’s ostensible look at Baby Boomer parenting, it premiered to some scathing pans (forgive the pun) and outright mockery at a time when irony was quickly gaining cachet over sentiment.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that, nearly 30 years later, Hook is one of the most beloved Spielberg movies among Millennials.
Gen-Xers, too, have gradually acquired a deep affection for it, particularly as they became parents themselves. (Also telling: when Robin Williams tragically passed away, Hook was probably a close third to Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting in terms of being the movie that people referenced the most, or that they re-watched in memoriam.)
The film’s message was targeted at an older generation, yet the movie was ultimately embraced by the ones that followed — not because of how it served as a critique of their parents, but because of how it expressed their heartfelt ideals.
Spielberg has said that to understand him best, a person should watch E.T. I have a hunch that watching Hook would constitute a close second (even over Schindler’s List). Why? Because this modernized Peter Pan sequel finds Spielberg wrestling not only with that inner child who never wants to grow up, but also with the parent he had become (or would, if he wasn’t careful).
Some marginalize Hook as being sappy, a pejorative intended to suggest something false or contrived. I can’t see Hook any other way than being deeply personal. Or to use a Judaic term, it plays like a self-reflective midrash on Spielberg’s favorite fairy tale.
The actual construct of the story is pretty brilliant; so, too, is how Spielberg captures the magic and romanticism of childhood, and (more importantly) how adulthood need not be its enemy.
Peter Banning (Williams) is a high-flying corporate mover-and-shaker. He’s also severely stressed. His career ambitions have caused him to lose a sense of his true self. He’s also allowed any meaningful connection with his kids to slip away (with his son Jack especially).
Also lost, and more deeply, is the dormant memory of his actual self, the real Peter Pan of the fantasy novels who actually lived in Neverland with Tinkerbell and the Lost Boys. Gone are the grand adventures they shared of battling Captain Hook. As one character astutely observes, Peter Pan has become a pirate.
At its core, the arc of this adventure is as soul-searching as it is swashbuckling.
After Peter’s children are Hook-napped back to Neverland, Peter sets out to save them. Along the way, The Lost Boys strive to help Peter come to terms with who he really is. This serves to stage some fun, vibrant, and thrilling set pieces, but it also provides an intriguing conflict — namely with Rufio, the new Pan who’s led The Lost Boys ever since Peter abandoned them for the real world.
The story is a 3-day journey to Peter’s resurrection (nice metaphor), capped by the “There you are, Peter!” moment that remains one of the most tender, emotional, and moving in all of Spielberg’s canon (which is really saying something).
In the movie’s mythos, the key to Peter finding himself and to fly again is to discover his “Happy Thought”. When he finally does, boy, it sure is sentimental but it’s also legitimately true. Those two virtues are ones that Spielberg melds better than anyone.
How Peter shares and reveals his Happy Thought becomes another heart-tugging, lump-in-your-throat verklempt in a movie that skillfully stacks them up; that includes the lyrics to the comforting lullaby “You’re Not Alone”, sung by Peter’s daughter Maggie:
Isn’t that a wonder? / When you’re alone / You’re not alone / Not really alone
The film’s has a bold, pulsating heart with spectacle to match. The sets are epic in both scale and detail. It’s a thrilling world to get lost in, particularly set against one of John Williams’ truly timeless scores, packed with memorable themes and cues (“Flight To Neverland” being another all-time favorite).
Yes, you do get a sense that there’s a studio backlot just out of frame, but even that artifice holds a certain charm (and, for me, a preferred aesthetic) over the false gaudiness of the computer-animated worlds seen in modern blockbusters.
Also, by keeping the adventure in “the real world”, Spielberg continues to express a more definitive command of his own unique cinematic language, a kind that’s classically (not digitally) rendered, and deceptively complex in its grandeur.
Hook marked the first time that Spielberg indulged in stacking his cast with A-list stars. Through his first 10+ films, Spielberg didn’t hire stars; he made them. (Remember that even with Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford was, at the time, still just seen as “that guy who plays Han Solo.”)
My hunch is that this marquee lineup was one of the reasons behind the film’s initial critical backlash. Part of the critique was that Spielberg had become obsessed with star power, allowing crass financial motivations to override artistic ones, something that some felt also bled over into indulgent visual excesses.
In the past, his movies had truly succeeded on their artistic merits, not on stunt casting. They’d connected with people because of how they were made, not marketed. But with Hook he went with all-stars, from Oscar-winners and nominees (Dustin Hoffman, Maggie Smith, and Williams) to the early-90s It Girl (Julia Roberts) and It Kid (Charlie Korsmo).
Audiences, too, may have found it difficult to connect with Spielberg’s characters, struggling to get past innate pre-conceived notions (even good ones) about the famous people who played them. In past Spielberg films, audiences were largely unencumbered by pre-existing opinions of the actors in those ensembles because viewers didn’t strongly identify those actors with something else.
Spielberg went so far as to cast musicians Phil Collins, David Crosby and Jimmy Buffett in bit parts, plus a cameo by Glenn Close (see if you can spot her). Spielberg’s goddaughter Gwyneth Paltrow also pops up in a pre-fame flashback as young Wendy.
But time has been kind to the cast as well. Dustin Hoffman’s spin on Captain Hook is downright inspired (and definitely undervalued). He revels in a playful, comic menace that subtly shifts to a darker cruelty, defined by disingenuous emotional manipulations.
Maggie Smith’s Granny Wendy is sweeter and more poignant than the sharp-tongued Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey that Smith has made iconic. (I still get choked up when Granny and Peter first see each other again; it’s magical, and palpable).
Even Julia Roberts comes off better without the full wattage of her new stardom, evoking some of the film’s most bittersweet moments through Tinkerbell’s unrequited love of Peter Pan.
And for Robin Williams, the adult Peter Pan has become one of his defining roles.
Viewing the themes of Hook through a modern lens, one can’t help but consider just how far the pendulum of parental dysfunction has dramatically swung.
In 1991, this was a cautionary tale for parents who were never present. Today, we see the inverse of that: helicopter parenting. Polar opposite approaches to parenting, each beset with their own downsides.
But the beauty of Hook‘s message is that the corrective for neglect isn’t to smother (a mistake that many contemporary parents make); the corrective is to empower.
Empowering a child isn’t achieved through making everything safer or easier for them. It’s in being present to help children face life’s dangers, to learn how to navigate and grow through them as they come at us.
Hook may have trafficked in nostalgia, but it was ahead of its time. Not for any forward-thinking cinematic innovations, mind you (it’s still gloriously old school on that front), but for the condition of its maudlin heart compared to the cynical times it was released in.
Back in 1991, critics dinged Spielberg’s sentimentality as a weakness. A generation later, in the wake of world-changing events like 9/11, that sentimentality is embraced as a strength. In 2001, our world shifted from irony to sincerity but, over time, we have once again become more divided, our attitudes more jaundiced.
These shifting cultural trends speak to why this fable became such a late bloomer. Hook is both the embodiment of and antidote to those opposing trends. It’s why more and more people continue to respond with warm hearts rather than rolled eyes when talking about Hook, and why we could still use more movies like it.
- Of all the directors he’d worked with, Dustin Hoffman was once asked who was the best. Spielberg was his answer because, in part, Hoffman said, Steven could do every other crew members’ job just as well as they could. That level of skill and knowledge, Hoffman felt, helped Spielberg to capture his actual vision as much as any director could hope to. It’s also what made him the best kind of director to work for.
- Actress and writer Carrie Fisher did some uncredited rewrites for the final script.
- At one moment, a kissing couple on a bridge begins to float up into the air when fairy dust is sprinkled over them. Reportedly, that couple was played by George Lucas and Carrie Fisher.
- This is the only Spielberg film since 1941 to exceed its budget and schedule. Originally slated for a 76-day shoot at a $48 million price tag, Hook ended up wrapping after 116 days of production and dinged TriStar studios for a price tag of somewhere between $60 and $80 million. This “troubled production” was another factor in how Hook was initially perceived and reviewed.
- Tom Hanks was strongly considered for the role of Peter. Neither he nor Robin Williams were close to Steven Spielberg at the time, but both would eventually be counted among the filmmaker’s most beloved friends.
- Before either Williams or Hanks were offered the role of Peter, Kevin Kline had actually been cast. He had to drop out, however, due to conflicts with a prior commitment to the film Soapdish.
- Hook was in development for more than a decade. Initially in the early 80s, Spielberg and Michael Jackson developed the project together before it was shelved. Then, in 1985, composer John Williams and lyricist Leslie Bricusse worked on a stage musical version of the story. That production also fell through, but not before 10 songs had been written. The one that made it into the film was “You’re Not Alone”. It was also during the stage development phase that Williams worked out most of the musical themes that would eventually be heard in the film’s score.