With Steven Spielberg at the helm and a ridiculously strong cast of Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, Bob Hoskins, and Julia Roberts, Hook should have been the standout Hollywood success story of 1991. Instead, it somehow managed to completely flop. Roger Ebert described it as “a lugubrious retread of a once-magical idea”. Most reviews followed suit. Audiences were left underwhelmed and disappointed by Spielberg’s take on the classic story of Peter Pan, with it even managing to have a woeful 30% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
As the 142-minute run-time suggests, Hook may be classed as a family film but it is without a doubt aimed at the grownups. The film tackles the simple question: what if Peter Pan grew up? The answer: he became an overweight, over-worked American businessman with zero time for his family and no recollection of his adventurous past. It all begins with Peter Banning (an ever-wonderful performance by Robin Williams) rushing frantically around his office with his phone stuck permanently to his ear, missing his son’s baseball games as he prepares for a trip to London. Granny Wendy (Maggie Smith) is having a wing at Great Ormond Street Hospital dedicated to her, and Peter must be there to give a speech – which he actually gets a colleague of his to write. Peter can only remember his later childhood with Wendy, where she rescued him as a 12-year-old orphan and found an American couple to adopt him. Before that, however, everything is a blur. There are nice little jokes thrown in for good measure to make it very clear that this unlikely man is Peter Pan. Peter’s colleagues wish him a safe flight to London ending with a very hammy “Don’t let your arms get tired!”, and Peter’s wife Moira comments that she will get him back to London “by hook or by crook”.
Once in London, Peter and Moira take Granny Wendy out for her very special evening, only to return home to find their children gone. This is no ordinary rich-kid kidnapping however, as a letter from Captain James Hook reveals. Wendy desperately tries to tell Peter of his past and how he is in fact the Peter Pan from J.M. Barrie’s books, and that for many years he lived in Neverland. Wendy and her brothers would visit him often, but slowly Wendy became a grownup and had a family of her own. It is a ludicrous storyline by all accounts; why Peter has forgotten his past entirely is never really explained, but it is told so beautifully by Smith and Williams that you get wrapped up in it all anyway.
Soon, Tinker Bell (Julia Roberts) shows up and takes Peter back to Neverland to fight Hook (Hoffman) for his children. Hook has spent the past few decades pining for his ‘war’ with Peter, missing the days gone by of fights between his crew of pirates and the Lost Boys. He’s a shadow of his former self, and this is where the true comedy value lies. Williams may be the star, but it’s Hoffman’s camp, almost pantomime performance that is the true gem of the film. He and Smee (Hoskins) are living like an old married couple on their pirate ship, wiling away the time until Peter finally returns for a good old-fashioned war. Hoffman is almost unrecognisable under a huge black wig and moustache (in fact, as a child I simply could not get my head around the fact that I was looking at Rain Man). He manages to steal the scene out of Williams’ grasp every single time, without fail.
That’s not to say that Williams doesn’t give a good performance. This is the perfect example of the childlike qualities that made him one of the most endearing performers of the last few decades. Even he thinks the whole thing is ludicrous, which allows the silliness to continue. He must remember his past and remember how to fly, all with the help of the Lost Boys. Williams fits in perfectly with a rabble of naughty children. Once he’s in those green tights and, slightly strangely, has had some kind of perm done, he becomes the all-singing, all-dancing Peter Pan that Hook has been waiting for.
For Spielberg, Hook has always been considered a low point of his career. Even he himself said that it didn’t turn out how he’d planned it to. But this is surely a classic example of that particular period of Spielberg films where a strong group of child actors manage to hold up, rather than drag down, a huge film. The Lost Boys are all great actors (although apparently a nightmare to keep under control), and Peter’s children Jack and Maggie manage to get through the entire film without even being slightly annoying. Spielberg gives actors like Hoffman and Hoskins the chance to ham it up and chew the scenery a bit, and the film is all the better for it.
The Neverland set itself looks exactly like that – a set. It’s like an adventure playground within a theme park, but why should it look real? This is Neverland after all, where the Lost Boys travel around on skateboards and hurl multi-coloured goo as ammunition. This is a playground, and the over-the-top set juxtaposes nicely with the dull reality of Peter’s life back home.
Hook is undeniably cheesy and fairly dated now, but at its heart it’s a warm take on a much-loved story. Hoffman gives a masterclass in over-the-top comedy, and supported by such a wonderful cast it’s difficult not to admire the love they all pour into their roles. Williams is as enthralling and sweet-natured as ever, managing to draw in young and older viewers alike. Watching this now, it’s just another reminder of what a huge loss to Hollywood his passing was.