How do you write a love letter to a film that made up so much of your childhood, yet can never be seen in quite the same way again?
So the loss of Robin Williams has tinged our childhood nostalgia with something new. His films have formed so much of us that we didn’t see it until now, when the presence of him in our early memories is a comfort and yet, at the same time, a little burst of sadness. Catching his films on Sunday afternoons will be a reason to smile and a reminder of something lost. Lines we might not have noticed will take on more meaning (“I was afraid of growing up because everyone who grows up has to die some day”).
But then, that sadness isn’t the point of a love letter. A man who made us laugh so much and for so long should be remembered with the smiles he gave us and the joy we felt – and still feel – when we watch his films. Prevailing critical opinion seems to hold that Hook is not the best effort from either Williams or the director Spielberg; but these are the opinions of adults who are, as we all know, “pirates”.
Hook is a supercoloured, supercharged gallop through a twisted Americana version of Barrie’s play/novel Peter Pan. Peter, having fallen in love with Wendy’s granddaughter Moira, is now all grown up; so much so, in fact, that he’s forgotten his previous life as a Lost Boy and become a middle-aged corporate laywer, a man who’s lost sight of all the real things in life. That is, his family. When his kids are kidnapped by Captain Hook, it’s up to boring, grown-up Peter to remember the magic and save them.
As a plot it’s a typically ’90s reinvention of a British classic, one which amps everything from productions to set-pieces right up to eleven, operating at full Hollywood gleam. Captain Hook masterminding a baseball game probably isn’t what JM Barrie had in mind; but then, this isn’t a remake, it’s a reimagining that feels like a dream. The production values on Hook‘s version of Neverland seem deliberately artificial; filmed on nine sound stages at Sony Pictures Studios in California, it’s always obvious that we’re not quite in the real world but somewhere inside of it. It’s a distinctiveness that makes it serve long in the memory; I know you can still see the giant crocodile turned into a clock tower, the food-colouring-blue waves against Hook’s ship, the constructed trees of the Lost Boys’ den. Who could ever forget the food fight in which an invisible meal becomes a technicolour rainbow of unidentifiable slime?
Funny then, that such an artifical landscape is threaded with such an intensely felt plot. The film is anchored by Peter’s moral and emotional stuntedness; he’s obsessed with his work as a lawyer, swooping in to tear apart failing companies (“Peter, you’ve become a pirate”), and never has enough time for his children, Maggie and Jack. The schism between Peter and his son is especially painful as we watch Peter making bad decisions over and over, breaking promises he doesn’t keep. In the same way that children must believe in fairies, Jack’s belief in his father is a thematic that provides the film’s lowest points – and helps to capture its highs. When Peter – reunited with the Lost Boys and taught to remember who he is – learns once again to fly, the memory he holds on to, that elevates him off the ground, is the memory of becoming a father.
For what is ostensibly a children’s film, these moments provide the same elevation from child’s play to family classic. Everywhere you turn the film is built on character and emotion: Peter’s heartbreak when Jack looks to Hook as a father; his grief and relief at remembering his own mother and himself. It’s a family film in meaning as well as name. For all its carving up of Barrie’s book, there’s more heart in Hook than there is in any frame of 2003’s direct adaptation.
And what of Williams? What is there to say that isn’t obvious in every frame? The film allows him his full range, from the out-and-out comedy of Mork and Mindy to the gravitas of Good Will Hunting. He allows himself to be terrible at the beginning, to be a modern pirate with his suits and clunky cell phone and Wall Street attitude; then, letting the fun creep in slowly, from the moment Tinker Bell appears and drags a drunken Peter back to Neverland right up to his showdown with Hook. And yet, the clarity of his acting never suffers. We are with him all the way.
For children, his interactions with the inhabitants of Neverland will never fail to please, from pirates to mermaids to Lost Boys. The film’s first real-set piece – Peter’s return and subsequent all-out fight with Hook’s pirate minions – shows off Williams’ physical comedy in its hyper-choreography, whilst his introduction to the Lost Boys and leader Rufio does much the same, flinging him around their treetop hideout like a lost baseball. Their attempts to make Peter remember, including flinging him out of slingshots and making him eat invisible food, let Williams run and run. “You’re doing it,” the Lost Boys say. “Doing what?” Peter asks. “Using your imagination!”
There’s so much delight to be had from Williams and this film. You cannot – cannot – help but smile. So it’s not an Oscar winner – no Good Will Hunting, no Good Morning, Vietnam – but nevertheless it’s a film to remind us of Robin Williams’ incredible talent, both comedic and dramatic. He’s working at full throttle here, switching effortlessly between the two and crafting a performance that has lived on in the minds of so many children, present and past, and will continue to do so.
With the departure of both the film’s Smee, Bob Hoskins, and now Williams himself, Hook is slowly becoming not so much nostalgia for chldhood as it is for the faces we’ve lost. About halfway through, Hook himself threatens suicide with a loaded pistol in a moment of Hollywoodised despair. It’s a painful scene, both for its unsavory early-’90s attitude to suicide and now for the echo in the back of our heads that makes that trivialisation all the worse. “I mean, what would the world be like without Captain Hook?” Smee says. To our despair, it’s Peter we’ll have to learn to live without.