(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 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 cultural cachet over sentiment. Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that, 25 years later, Hook is possibly the most beloved Spielberg movie among Millennials.
Gen-Xers, too, have gradually acquired a deep affection for it, particularly as they became parents themselves. (Also telling: upon Robin Williams’ tragic passing, Hook was probably a near-third to Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting in terms of the movie that people referenced most, or re-watched in memoriam.) The film’s message targeted one generation but 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 heartfelt ideals.
Spielberg has said that to understand him best, watch E.T. I have a hunch that watching Hook would constitute a close second (even over Schindler’s List) because this modernized Peter Pan sequel finds Spielberg wrestling not only with that inner child who never wants to grow up, but with the parent that he had become (or would, if he wasn’t careful). Some marginalize Hook as being sappy; I can’t see it any other way than being deeply personal, and even – in Judaic terms – a self-reflective midrash by Spielberg on his favorite fairy tale.
The whole construct of the story is pretty brilliant, actually; so too is how Spielberg captures the magic and romanticism of childhood, and how adulthood need not be its enemy.
Peter Banning (Williams) is a high-flying but severely stressed corporate mover-and-shaker. His career ambitions have caused him to lose his sense of self, along with any meaningful connection with his kids – his son Jack especially. Also lost, and more deeply, is the dormant memory of his true self, the real Peter Pan of the fantasy novels who actually lived in Neverland with the Lost Boys and Tinkerbell, all who shared grand adventures battling Captain Hook. Peter Pan, one character astutely observes, has become a pirate.
So the arc of this adventure is as soul-searching as it is swashbuckling, as Peter is brought back to Neverland to save his kids who’ve been Hook-napped. The Lost Boys strive to help him come to terms with who he really is, in ways that are fun, vibrant, and thrilling, but also layered with conflict – namely Rufio, the new Pan who’s led the boys ever since Peter abandoned them for the real world. It’s 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 saying something).
In the movie’s mythos, the key to Peter finding himself and flying again is to discover his “happy thought”. When he finally does, it’s as sentimental as it is true (two virtues that Spielberg melds better than anyone). How Peter shares and reveals that happy thought becomes another heart-tugging, lump-in-your-throat choke-up in a movie that skillfully stacks them up (including the lyrics to daughter Maggie’s comforting lullaby “You’re Not Alone”: Isn’t that a wonder? / When you’re alone / You’re not alone / Not really alone).
The film’s spectacle is as bold and pulsating as its heart. The sets are epic in scale and detail, 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 a favorite).
Yes, you do sense the studio backlot that’s just out of frame, but even that holds a charm (and, for me, a preferred aesthetic) over the even-more false gaudiness of contemporary digitized worlds. By also keeping the adventure in “the real world”, Spielberg continues to best express his own unique cinematic language, one that’s classically rendered and deceptively complex in its grandeur.
One of the likely reasons for Hook’s initial critical backlash was that, casting wise, this was the first time Spielberg had become obsessed with star power (skeptics likely saw crass financial motivations trumping artistic ones). Through his first 10+ films, Spielberg didn’t hire stars; he made them.
His movies had truly succeeded on their artistic merits; 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 like they had before, struggling to get past pre-conceived notions (even good ones) about the famous people playing them. 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), from his playful, comic menace to the darker cruelty of his disingenuous emotional manipulations.
Maggie Smith’s Granny Wendy is even sweeter and more poignant in contrast to her iconic sharp-tongued Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey (I still get choked up when she and Peter first see each other again; it’s magical, and palpable), and the adult Peter Pan has become one of Williams’ defining roles. 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.
Viewing Hook in the context of a contemporary lens, one can’t help but consider how the pendulum of parenting dysfunction has dramatically swung. This was a cautionary tale for parents who were never present. Today we see its inverse: helicopter parenting. Polar opposite approaches, each beset with their own downsides. But the beauty of Hook‘s message isn’t that the corrective for neglect is to smother; it’s to empower. That’s not achieved through making everything safe; it’s being present to help children face, navigate and grow through dangers as they come.
Hook may have trafficked in nostalgia, but it was ahead of its time. Not for any forward-thinking cinematic innovations, but for where the cultural temperament was then as compared to now. In 1991, critics dinged Spielberg’s sentimentality as a weakness. A generation later, it’s embraced as a strength.
Our post-9/11 world shifted from irony to sincerity, but it’s also become increasingly cynical. These trends speak to why Hook became such a late bloomer; it’s both the embodiment and antidote of 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 use more movies like it.
- Once when asked who was the best director he ever worked with, Dustin Hoffman said that it was Steven Spielberg because, in part, he could do every other crew persons job as well as his if it were humanly possible, and do it just as well. That level of skill and knowledge helps him capture his actual vision as much as any director can hope to, while also being the best kind 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 when sprinkled with fairy dust. That couple was reportedly played by George Lucas and Carrie Fisher.
- This is the only one of Spielberg’s films since Raiders of the Lost Ark (which helped discipline Steven to stay within reasonable budgets and timeframes) to exceed its budget and shoot schedule. Originally slated for a 76-day shoot at a $48 million price tag, Hook ended up wrapping after 116 days that dinged TriStar studios for reportedly somewhere between $60 and $80 million. This “troubled production” was another factor in how it was initially received and perceived.
- Tom Hanks was also strongly considered for the role of Peter. Neither he nor Robin Williams were close with Steven Spielberg at the time, but both would be eventually be counted among the filmmaker most beloved friends after each of their initial collaborations.
- Before either Williams or Hanks were offered the role of Peter, Kevin Kline had actually been cast. He had to drop, however, out due to conflicts with a prior commitment to the film Soapdish.
- Hook had a decade-long development history. It was initially a project that Spielberg developed with Michael Jackson in the early 80s before it was shelved. Then in 1985, composer John Williams and lyricist Leslie Bricusse worked on a stage musical version of the story. It 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 this stage development that Williams worked out most of the themes that would be heard in the film’s score.