Each month, we at FilmHounds take a look at a director’s back catalogue and pick their lowest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes and ask ourselves – why? Why is it their least loved among critics? Regardless, we attempt to see the good in it.
This Month: Steven Spielberg’s HOOK (1991)
“I’d like to go back and watch Hook again because I so don’t like that film”
When that is a quote from a director some twenty-two years after they’ve made the film that might be an inclination that there’s something amiss. Spielberg famously said that in conversation with Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo when promoting Lincoln. For years, Hook has remained the film most people claim is Spielberg’s worst film and its score on Rotten Tomatoes beats other lesser Spielberg works such as 1941 and Always. And yet there is a long list of defenders for the film.
Spielberg himself is a year away from releasing his latest film West Side Story which sees the director venture into uncharted territory with a musical, though originally that was to be the fate of his adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s legendary stories of The Boy Who Never Grew Up. Spielberg himself admits he chickened out of making Hook a musical, even though friend and collaborator John Williams was in the midst of composing songs for the film.
The production history of Hook is a messy one. Peter Pan as a character was one that Spielberg was fascinated by for years and wanted to do something involving the character since Close Encounters of the Third Kind but kept pushing it back in favour of other projects. Nick Castle was at one point set to direct with a screenplay by Jim V. Hart who said his storyline came from a simple question his son once asked him “What if Peter Pan did grow up?”
The film in its final form straddles a line between Spielberg’s career pivots. In the late 80s, early 90s, Spielberg was on the cusp of becoming a true awards director and making some of the most serious films of his career; the 90s saw him give the world Schinder’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Amistad. Even his blockbusters like Jurassic Park had a darker, scarier edge and his 80s films, while adding lashes of Indiana Jones magic, explored race and warfare in The Colour Purple and Empire of the Sun. Hook came at a time when Spielberg himself was in between being a child-like wonder director and a serious adult director, unsure where he stood. Hook reflects this change in his career perspective.
In taking the character of Peter Pan and turning him into an adult – Peter Banning, played by Robin Williams – we get another in a long line of Spielberg films that deal with the absent or uninterested father figure. Banning himself is all about work and misses his son, Jack, playing baseball. His lack of connection to his two children is the driving force of the film, Captain Hook uses this to turn his own son against Banning in an attempt to bring back Pan.
The main issue with Hook is that the film is wildly inconsistent; it’s filled with tragedy but also plays like a family film. Wendy, now an old woman who adopted Peter as her grandson, is ailing and old and Tootles, a former Lost Boy, is considered mad, though could just be suffering from the effects of dementia. At one point Tinkerbell remarks that it’s not surprising that Banning forgot who he was given that his memories are all sad. The film makes light of murder, and there’s recurring jokes about Hook himself being desperate to commit suicide.
On the flip side, the film has a musical number courtesy of Maggie Banning, Peter’s younger daughter, the only hold over from the film’s previous life as a musical. Banning in escaping The Jolly Roger falls and hits his private parts three separate times to comic effect, The Lost Boys have a big food fight, and their leader Rufio is a Gen X skateboarder who looks like a hold-over from a Mad Max movie.
It doesn’t help that the casting is also inconsistent. Williams playing a grown up Peter Pan in a Steven Spielberg adventure film sounds like a recipe for printing money. No one does childlike glee on screen like Williams, and in the 90s he was at the height of his powers. Yet the film casts him in a role that renders him miserable and low energy until the final twenty minutes. What the film really needed was someone who was known for being dour, but who in the final ten minutes could show the glee they rarely get to. Couple that with the miscasting of Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell, who was reportedly so difficult to work with that the cast and crew nicknamed her Tinker-hell because producers didn’t want original choice Carrie Fisher (who did uncredited work on the screenplay and cameos as someone kissing George Lucas on a bench).
But despite this, the film is still much better than the detractors would give it credit for. For one, the score by Williams features some of his best work. Presenting the Hook is a fantastic piece of music that has threat and whimsy that perfect sets up the world of Neverland, and the build up and meta-textual story that Peter Pan has become a story based on fact is interesting enough in it’s most basic form. It also perfectly fits within the Spielberg canon as another exploration of father’s learning to be more present in their children’s lives; Banning is not irredeemable but just someone who has lost sight of his true passion – his kids.
Aside from the miscasting of Roberts, and the sidelining of Williams’ stronger suits, the film is perfectly cast. Not only does Maggie Smith make for a perfect Wendy Darling, but Dustin Hoffman has never been better as villainous Captain Hook, able to turn up the menace when needed but also filled with a glee. His incredulous delivery of “You’re Peter?!” when faced with an older Banning goes perfectly with his slightly lisping delivery of lines. Bob Hoskins is also perfectly cast as Mr. Smee and both Hoskins and Hoffman have claimed they played their roles as if they were lovers, which makes perfect sense, and Hopkins gruff Cockney manner is perfectly placed.
The scenes of the pirates bowing to Hook’s whim of pleasing Jack by staging a massive baseball game is gleefully fun stuff, including the iconic sequence of pirates shouting “Run home, Jack!”, which also perfectly plays into Jack’s seduction into becoming Hook’s surrogate son. The sight of Jack in full Hook get-up smashing clocks as an outlet for his rage at his father’s failures is horrific and upsetting. When You’re Alone which was nominated for an Academy Award (one of the film’s five nominations) is moving and puts a mark on Maggie’s journey as the sole person who believes in her father.
Where the film hits it’s stride most of all is in the scenes with The Lost Boys. It seems obvious to state but no one is a better director of children than Spielberg and his career is peppered with children in roles that become the breakout characters of their respective. Not only do Banning’s children manage to bring depth to their roles but more importantly the Lost Boys and their imaginary food fights are filled with childlike wonder and it’s obvious to state now but there is no cooler 90s character than Dante Basco’s tripple hawked leader Rufio. The chants of “Ru-fi-o, Ru-fi-o, Ru. Fi. O!” are still the stuff of drinking games and chants between friends, and Basco is perfect in his role as the super-cool foil to the more lame Banning.
The film also is not lacking in heart, Raushan Hammond’s Lost Boy Thud Butt looking at Banning with a warm smile proclaiming “There you are, Peter”, is the proclamation that a Spielbergian finale is on it’s way, and the reconciliation between Jack and Banning is also deeply moving. Most of all, the death of Rufio at the hands of Hook, perfectly ended by Rufio’s “I wish I had a father like you” is impossible not to be emotionally destroyed by.
The film also is filled with cameos from Glenn Close as a male pirate who is executed at the beginning of Banning’s introduction to Neverland, to Phil Collins as a police inspector, to Jimmy Buffet and Tony Burton – plus an early turn from Spielberg’s goddaughter Gwyneth Paltrow as a young Wendy. There is a joy to the film’s cameos that might pale in comparison to the cameo heavy blockbusters of today but Hook laid the groundwork for pirating adventures like Pirates of the Caribbean which are filled with cameos.
Despite the tonal inconsistencies, and some missteps in casting and storytelling, Hook is not the dud people think it is. The design alone got it nominated for awards, and there is a reason people remember it more than previously mentioned lesser Spielberg movies – even if the director himself isn’t a fan but there’s childlike wonder in seeing a lavish, big budget movie that dares to look at adult ideas – identity, memory, parental insecurities and talk about it to children in a way that at times can be upsetting and at other times can be joyful. There’s a reason people still chant Hook, Hook, give us the Hook!