Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991) is my favorite movie of all time. Maybe that seems like an odd choice for a grown man, but there’s no doubt in my mind about it. There are so many things I love about this movie, but they can be roughly broken down into two categories. First, the film itself is a heartwarming adventure story full of swashbuckling action and lovable characters. Second, from a behind-the-scenes perspective it’s an impressive technical achievement that stays surprisingly faithful to the source material. I’ve always loved the story of Peter Pan, and in my mind there’s no better adaptation of it than Hook.
Minor spoilers ahoy!
Let’s start with the movie itself. The themes are pretty clear: love for your family and friends is more important than the drive for success, and we should never abandon our childlike capacity for imagination. Okay, these are pretty broad themes, and any number of movies covers them, but none do it as effectively as Hook. We see an adult disillusioned by the callous real world rediscover his forgotten happy thoughts and undergo an amazing transformation from lawyer to Lost Boy, and he takes us right along with him.
The first half hour of the movie is completely normal, with no hint of magic whatsoever. Peter Banning (played by the inimitable Robin Williams) is a corporate raider, a workaholic who specializes in doing dirty jobs and making lots of money. Unsurprisingly, he’s a failure of a father who talks on his cell phone at his daughter’s school play (Peter Pan, of course) and misses his son’s little league games. We’re set up not to like Peter Banning, a clever man who easily cracks irreverent jokes but is deeply insecure and prone to flying off the handle when pressured.
This is best illustrated when Peter’s family flies to England to spend time with Granny Wendy (Maggie Smith), Peter’s adoptive mother and the grandmother of his wife, Moira. Peter has a crippling fear of flying, and his irrepressible son, Jack, throws a baseball against the roof of their plane, causing the emergency air mask to drop down. Peter screams at him to stop acting like a child, and an incredulous Jack replies, “I am a child.”
In England we start to see hints of Peter’s goodness, but it’s buried deep beneath a tough exterior that he’s built up to shield himself. Still, he shows affection for Granny Wendy, and is deeply touched when all the orphans stand up to honor her at the benefit in her honor.
Then, of course, Peter’s children get kidnapped by Captain James Hook, played by an unrecognizable Dustin Hoffman. Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) shows up to take Peter to Neverland, explaining that he’s Peter Pan all grown up, but Peter doesn’t remember and doesn’t believe. Tink takes him to the Lost Boys, where he gets a rough welcome from their new leader, Rufio (Dante Basco, AKA Prince Zuko). Peter gradually earns Rufio’s respect, and together they confront the pirates.
Meanwhile, Hook and Smee hatch a plan to turn Jack against Peter, and Peter must struggle internally to regain his son’s love even as he struggles externally to defeat Hook. The scenes of Smee and Hook plotting together are some of the best in the movie, and do a wonderful job of humanizing Hook into more than just a pointlessly evil villain. The old pirate has deep-seated pathos, which presumably has something to do with his strong desire to murder children.
Of course it all ends happily, and Peter and his children are reunited. Neverland is saved, and Peter entrusts his sword to Thudbutt. When Peter returns home he’s a changed man, and happily tosses his cell phone away so that he can spend time with his family.
The movie is the perfect encapsulation of the hero cycle: orphan is taken from familiar surroundings into dangerous unknown, where he undergoes a series of trials to gain knowledge and skills needed to save his family. It’s a simple story, but it’s punctuated by amazingly memorable scenes like Smee (Bob Hoskins) parading the hook through the pirate’s town, or the Lost Boys’ imaginary feast, or Smee trying to stop Captain Hook from killing himself, or the final climactic confrontation between Pan and Hook. I could fill ten blog posts just listing all the great scenes in the movie and what I love about them.
John Williams’ incredibly underrated score really sets the tone for each of these scenes; I honestly think this might be Williams’ best work, but no one seems to remember it. (Incidentally, you can hear the genesis of the Harry Potter theme in the Hook soundtrack if you listen for it.)
What really pushes this movie over the top for me is the filmcraft that went into it. This movie uses a fair amount of CGI with the miniature Julia Roberts and a few of the flight scenes, but it’s by and large composed of practical effects and constructed sets. The Pirate Wharf and the Lost Boys’ playground are actual, physical places–immense sets with tons of space for the actors to run around and pull off terrific stunts. In reality, nine entire sound stages were used for the filming. When I watch this movie I want to go to Neverland, and I feel like I can because it’s real. I feel more transported when I watch Hook than when I watch Avatar because my brain knows that one of those two is just a cartoon.
The performances are really top-notch, with Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman both handing in amazing performances. Hoffman in particular steals the show, and his chemistry with Bob Hoskins as Smee is electric (“Don’t you dare try to stop me, Smee!”). The supporting cast is all wonderful. Maggie Smith is commanding as the slightly mysterious Granny Wendy, Dante Basco is excellent as the impetuous Rufio, and Charlie Korsmo does a phenomenal job as Jack. The movie also has a ton of random cameos, such as Glenn Close, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jimmy Buffett, David Crosby, Phil Collins, Carrie Fisher, and even George Lucas.
I also really love the attention to details from J. M. Barrie’s 1911 novel Peter and Wendy. Many of the lines from the movie are direct callbacks to the book, such as Peter’s closing line, “To live would be an awfully big adventure,” which echoes Pan’s line, “To die would be an awfully big adventure,” from the original. Many of the pirates and Lost Boys are based on counterparts from the novel, a touch so subtle most would miss it. I also really like the visual references to F. D. Bedford’s original illustrations, such as Peter standing with arms akimbo in a lot of scenes even before going back to Neverland. This attention to nuance is something that no other Peter Pan adaptation has ever gotten quite right.
For as much as I love Hook, it didn’t get a very warm reception in 1991. Roger Ebert called it a “lugubrious retread of a once-magical idea,” and many critics agreed: it only has a 30% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes (though it has a 76% audience rating). I can’t understand it; everything I like, the critics hate. I love the sets; they hate the sets. I love the cast; they hate the cast. I love the updates to the novel; they hate the updates to the novel. How can so many professional critics be so collectively wrong? Even Spielberg said in 2011 that he doesn’t like the Neverland parts of Hook because he thinks digital sets would look better than the practical ones. Of course, this is the guy who made Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, so I don’t put much stock in his opinions of late.
If you discounted the four Pirates of the Caribbean films, Hook would be the number-one grossing pirate-themed film of all time. Despite what a bunch of heartless adults say about it, Hook is fantastic. It isn’t quite an adult’s movie, and it isn’t quite a kid’s movie. It’s a film where you can be a child and a grown-up at the same time. It’s that place between asleep and awake–that place where you still remember dreaming. It’s a reminder that even if we have to get old, we don’t have to lose our sense of wonder.