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SpielBLOG: Hook – A Steven Spielberg Retrospective

I’ve enjoyed writing these SpielBlog posts. Some of these movies are my favourite movies of all time. And even a flop like 1941 has something to recommend it – the tank crashing through a paint factory, to be specific. But the latest film for us – Hook – was deeply gnawingly tedious and took me a good three tries to watch. Following on from Always, it was the first time in his career that Steven Spielberg made back-to-back stinkers.

So, what went wrong? Well, like AlwaysHook is one of those dreaded dream projects that turn into nightmares. The script had been knocking around for years and everyone felt Spielberg would be the perfect fit. Wasn’t he a kind of Peter Pan figure, after all? A big kid refusing to grow up, his persistent interest in UFOs and adventure longing for the absent, or compromised parents who are sprinkled throughout his movies.

With subtext rewritten as text, Robin Williams plays Peter Banning, a mobile phone addicted businessman with no time for his kids. But when he returns to London and Wendy (Maggie Smith), an old lady who looked after him at the orphanage, his children are kidnapped by Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) and Peter must remember his true identity as Peter Pan to rescue them from Neverland. In this, he will be aided by Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell and a Little Rascals style gang of Lost Boys who have been ‘modernized’ to include skateboards and punkish hairdos.

John Williams’ score tries out some Harry Potter themes, but the songs which were written for the film when it was still a musical are dropped. And without them, the core of the film is decidedly empty. Where there should be comedy, there’s tired panto; where there should be heart, there’s cringe-worthy saccharine and where there should be adventure and action, everything is all very indoor and – worryingly for Spielberg – confusing. Some song and dance routine might have animated what is otherwise – filmed across nine soundstages in Culver City – an airless artificial slightly acrid affair. A musical without songs, a comedy without jokes, it feels like a common slip up for New Hollywood. Francis Ford Coppola made One for the Heart; Martin Scorsese did New York, New York, but whereas those films have attained a cult status, Spielberg’s ought to just be bland popcorn entertainment and the fact its boring can’t be compensated with something underneath. There’s no there there.

Robin Williams – at the height of his movie-star fame – is (let’s face it) creepy. On paper it must have looked tantalising, but in reality, there is a massive uncanny valley separating the boyish and the boy. Williams attempts a more restrained approach, but absent his comedy, his performance dribbles into a series of reaction shots of surprise and awe, giving way to mopey dewy-eyed sentiment. The dark madness that lurks behind the central premise of Peter Pan would be seen that same year (1991) in Terry Gilliam’s retelling of the Grail legend The Fisher King. In fact, that film explores similar ideas of adult responsibility pitted against a fantasy world in a much more impressive way.

To be fair Spielberg is trying to make a children’s movie – with custard pie food fights and giddy hilarity that induces nausea. Unfortunately, unlike the Lost Boys of ET, we really don’t give a sugared fig for these moppets and even Peter’s impossibly cute offspring are reduced to Bambi-eyed McGuffins who barely inspire a flicker of concern. Dustin Hoffman and Bob Hoskins as Mr Smee enjoy their roles and chew their scenery with gusto, but the scenery is so obviously scenery. Perhaps the artificiality could be accepted in Neverland – though it looks like a shitty Pirates of the Caribbean ride with its pointless roller-coaster – but even when we’re in the real world, we’re still in Culver City.

And perhaps that is one of the most surprising failures of Hook, its technical flaws. The cinematography is flat; the special effects, underwhelming; the action sequences, confusing and dull.

When Hook came out, it was seen as the misstep it was. It made its money back, even though no one really liked it. Peter Pan would be tackled a few more times, but it has been a story that apart from the Disney cartoon has never really successfully made the transition from page to screen. This might be because it is a product of a particular moment in history when child mortality was high and the mind of a man whose relationship to children and his own mortality was strange to say the least.  It might be that the mix of panto and drama just don’t lend themselves to cinema. It could also be because the spirit of Peter Pan was so diffused in other manifestations. For Spielberg, Close Encounters and ET already dealt with those issues in a way that made Hook redundant.

Spielberg was hit hard by the film’s critical reception, breaking his usual habit and reading the reviews. He already knew the film had gone out of his control – it echoes Robert Altman’s Popeye as well (also starring Williams in an iconic role). He could hold up the excuse that he was doing too much. ER was going into production and other properties such as Schindler’s List and Cape Fear were in search of directors as the scripts were developed. Plus, the director was also prepping another of his dream projects, but one that would, fortunately, buck the fate of his last two. You see for as long as he wanted to make movies, Steven Spielberg had wanted to make a movie about dinosaurs. It was another dream project.

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