American businessman Peter Banning (Robin Williams) travels to London to help honour “Grannie” Wendy (Maggie Smith), whose orphanage housed him as a child. Once there, however, his children are kidnapped by Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) and taken to the Neverland of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Peter learns the truth: that he is the real Peter Pan, all grown up, and must restore his memories to reunite his family.
Hook, released back in 1991, is not one of Steven Spielberg’s most popular films. From its initial release it was dogged by accusations of overt sentimentality, of being lazy filmmaking, and abusing a classic work of literature to make a crass Hollywood blockbuster. To all of that I say ‘Absolutely, but hear me out.’
Spielberg first started circling a potential Peter Pan feature in the early 1980s, when he and Walt Disney Pictures were exploring some form of collaboration together. By the time Hook was produced, Spielberg was almost a full decade further through his career and the film had evolved from adaptation to sequel. The Spielberg who directed E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and was in the process of founding Amblin Entertainment was a strong fit for Pan; the Spielberg coming off the back of The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun much less so. There’s a weird sense of Hook being an obligation – the director’s heart simply isn’t in it – and no amount of visual effects or stylistic flourishes can mask the overall sense of the moribund.
The entertainment value of Hook is not in the overall film, which is essentially sentimentality without heart. It is in the individual performances and scenes that shine out from the rest of the film. Critically, Dustin Hoffman and Bob Hoskins absolutely own the movie as Hook and Smee. Their dialogue sparkles (Hoffman brought in his own screenwriter), their delivery sparks, and their chemistry is second-to-none. The rest of the film could be the worst cinema ever devised and it would still be worth sitting through for the entire ‘Don’t try to stop me, Smee’ exchange. John Williams’ musical score is also exceptional.
Robin Williams is good as Peter Banning, but to be honest the more childlike aspects of his performance have soured over time thanks to what seemed like an endless stream of man-child, comedic roles that occurred after the fact. At the time they were entertaining, but decades later and they seem to mark a career progression into family entertainment that delivered weaker and weaker dividends as the films went on. Charie Corsmo is also worth noting
Julia Roberts, on the other hand, is colossally miscast as the fairy Tinkerbell. She is devoid of charisma, grates badly against the light fantasy world of the film, and gives the distinct impression that she would rather be doing anything with her time than play a fairy. It’s a big hit against the overall film, since a Peter Pan adaptation without a functional Tinkerbell instinctively feels lost.
This is a film to watch for Captain Hook and Smee, and for Peter Pan trying to recover his childhood, and for the odd genuinely effective moment such as Jack (Corsmo) breaking down over his father’s neglect in a room full of broken clocks. It’s a curate’s egg of a film. At its worst it is simply an average film; the frustration comes from knowing it could have been a great one.