A review requested by Caleb Wimble, with thanks for supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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Having been born in 1981, I am from a very precise generational cohort that is now and forever unable to separate my childhood feelings towards the 1991 Steven Spielberg fantasy epic Hook from actual considerations of its quality. I say this in the spirit of necessary full disclosure, though I don't think I'm giving Hook points it doesn't deserve. It's a broken film with substantially too many strong individual elements to discard it (and it is one of the most essential Spielberg-as-Auteur films, if that's your jam), but those strong elements do feel awfully damn lonely. So the disclosure isn't "I'm letting nostalgia cloud my judgment", but "I am really damn sad that I super don't love this movie like I did when I last saw it 20 something years ago".

Anyway, even as a child, I knew which parts of the film worked and which parts didn't. It's more that my fond memories grossly miscalculated what percentage of the film was made up of the bad parts. Like, the first outright good scene in the movie doesn't happen for a half of an hour (and at 142 minutes for a lighthearted kiddie fantasy, this is one of the all-time champion "longer than it had any chance of ever justifying" movies). And given that the movie has sense enough to realise that Captain James Hook (Dustin Hoffman) is its strongest element, it's frustrating as hell that Hook spends so little time onscreen. That's with Hoffman receiving first billing, even.

No, Hook is not about Hook so much, but about Peter Banning (Robin Williams), a California lawyer who, by virtue of having that profession in a turn-of-the-'90s family film, is a happily self-regarding asshole who treats his wife Moira (Caroline Goodall) and children Jack (Charlie Korsmo) and Maggie (Amber Scott) with only somewhat more affection and attention than you or I might regard a particularly beloved potted plant. Less, if you're a particular whiz with plants. This particular Christmas season, Peter has committed himself to heading back to London, where he grew up an orphan in the children's home run by Moira's grandmother Wendy (Maggie Smith); this year, she's being fêted as the dedicatee of a new wing at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, and even a soulless workaholic like Peter has enough humanity left in his heart to know that he can't ignore a major event in life of such an important woman in his and Moira's life.

Wendy, by the way, is the Wendy: the one who inspired J.M Barrie to write the play Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up in 1904 (in fact, Barrie wrote the play for the five children of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, all of them boys). And Peter, though he doesn't remember it, is the Peter: the boy from Neverland who refused to grow up, until he finally did. And if he doesn't remember this, at least one person does: Captain Hook the pirate, who has bided his time all these decades, and has taken this opportunity to kidnap Jack and Maggie as part of his life-consuming desire to take revenge on Peter for be-handing him once upon a time.

"What if Peter Pan grew up?" isn't by any means the worst idea for a story, and Hook has the decency to bury its concept inside Barrie's later epilogue, "When Wendy Grew Up" (which gives Wendy a granddaughter named Margaret). But the story that writers James V. Hart & Nick Castle whipped up (the screenplay is credited to Hart and Malia Scotch Marmo) is messy as hell, and that's just that. We could sit and nitpick the thing to death, if we liked, starting with Why isn't Hook dead? (because this is actually an uncredited and unofficial sequel to Disney's Peter Pan, not Barrie's) and Why is Peter American, despite being born in England, raised in England, and presented as English in flashbacks? (because "Robin Williams is Grown-Up Peter Pan!" was an irresistible marketing hook, internal logic be damned), but nitpicking is hardly necessary. It's a klutzy screenplay, taking a weirdly long time to establish the contours of the familial conflict, and resolutely failing to rise above cliché at any point, including such chestnuts as Ignoring the School Play and Missing the Big Game and Having His Cellular Phone Glued To His Goddamn Face (in 1991, having a cell phone in a movie was a pretty much instantaneous signifier of being shallow yuppie scum, and indeed Peter's phone is used to track his emotional development right to the last scene. I am tempted to say that nothing in any other Spielberg movie has ever aged this badly, but of course that's not the film's fault).

Sort of nothing works in any of this: the dialogue is acutely shitty - there are no worse-written children in Spielberg, and this is the director of both Jurassic Park and The Lost World: Jurassic Park - and the performances don't really land, except for maybe Smith's (Williams is a curious lost cause throughout: he's treating it as one of his "serious" parts, but he's still trying to do the goofy clown bit - it is a children's comedy. It's ineffective, but largely different from anything else in Williams's career). It becomes clear very early on that Spielberg doesn't have a solid handle on what he wants the movie to be: if I had to guess, I'd say that in his heart of hearts, he just wanted to make a Peter Pan movie, but the film played so neatly into his career-long obsession with emotionally unavailable fathers that he couldn't resist. And so we end up with a film juggling the needs of an emotionally probing bad dad picture with a frothy fantasy adventure, and is equally ambivalent about fully committing to either one of those modes. After Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I can't name another film where Spielberg is so visibly warring with the material, though while he was there clearly disgusted by the script, here it's more like he doesn't trust himself to have fun with it.

At any rate, the film picks up a lot once Peter is taken back to Neverland by the motormouth fairy Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts), and we finally get a chance to meet Hook in the flesh, and his ebullient sycophant Smee (Bob Hoskins), and the rest of the gaudy child's fantasy world of pirate towns that look unabashedly and pridefully like movie sets. It' was true for Disney in 1953 and it was true for Spielberg and crew here: Captain Hook is just better than anything Peter can get up to. And that's exaggerated in this film thanks to the acting: if Williams can't seem to figure out what emotional tone is right for his character, and Spielberg can't help him get there, Hoffman has extremely clear designs on playing the bad guy as a self-absorbed theatrical ham, short on patience and long on melancholy. It's frankly one of the great villain turns by a great actor anywhere in the 1990s, big and broad, but with precise tuning, aided by elaborate make-up but never beholden to it, and one often gets the impression that Hoffman was enforcing a tone on the movie rather than playing to the tone the film was asking of him.

It works, anyway; the pirate scenes are absolutely terrific, Hoffman is the absolute best thing in the movie, and Hoskins is the absolute second-best thing. One desperately yearns for the film implied by the title, a version of this story told primarily from Hook's perspective. That might have been a bright and snappy fantasy worthy of the energy Spielberg pours onto those scenes.

Otherwise, there's a hell of a lot working against the project. And some stuff working for it! The fuzzy tone largely resolves itself once the action hits Neverland (for all the rocky scenes to follow, the film never hits the lows of the first half hour again), and I'll not hear a word said against Norman Garwood's production design, which presents Neverland as a playground more than a real place, feeling at all points like the world's grandest stage with the world's most florid set pieces. And given the material's ultimate theatrical origin, that's pretty much exactly right.

But given the inherent importance of children to the Peter Pan universe, it's damn near fatal that Hook has so many godawful child roles, and that Spielberg - one of the deftest directors of children in film history - encourages his young cast to such cloying extremes. The Lost Boys were the one part of the film I never liked, a ghastly incarnation of the X-tremeness of late-'80s and early-'90s visual culture in the form of spiky-haired fantasy skateboarder Rufio (Dante Basco), and a whole bunch of obnoxiously one-note cutesy-pie figures given limited definition that isn't "the tiny one" or "the fat one". And they bring out the very, very worst of Williams, who goes for the most saccharine possible expressions and line readings.

There's also the stupefying matter of Tinkerbell. On paper, it makes sense to cast 1991-era Roberts (a cheery, bubbly It Girl of the moment) in the role, but it goes terribly awry: stuck away in the visual effects studio, Roberts grew immediately frustrated with the film and the part, and her disinterest manifests itself as shrill one-note maniacal pep. The script also has some frankly horrible notions for what Tinkerbell should be up to (beyond the fact that she has legible dialogue, even), including an injection of grown-up sexuality that is profoundly wrong for Peter Pan, Robin Williams, children's cinema, and Steven Spielberg.

So the problems are dire, just dire. But I am dwelling on them, perhaps a bit too much. Hoffman is, legitimately, enough all by himself to justify the whole movie, and he's not all by himself. There's Hoskins, there are the sets, there is the lush Dean Cundey cinematography (the first of his few collaborations with Spielberg), there is the glossy effects work. And there is John Williams, giving the movie far more of a sense of genuine awe and magic than seems possible. I won't say that it's necessarily one of his best scores, but it's entirely possible that it's the time in all his career when his score is doing the most work. The major themes are excellent: a sarcastic march fragment for Hook, a grand sweeping motif more than slightly reminiscent of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial for Peter, once he remembers who he is and regains the ability to fly (including a shot blatantly reminiscent of E.T., but I'll be happy to take recycled Spielberg in the absence of anything better). But the score is still doing a hell of a lot to guide our emotional response to everything, and it's impressive how effective it can be. Even a treacly scene of the Lost Boys prodding Peter's face feels legitimately magical with Williams leaning on the audience to feel that magic.

Once upon a time, I thought this was enough to salvage the film (my memories of the film almost exclusively hinged on the score, and the music-dominated moments). It's really not, I'm sorry to say; not even the power of Williams and Hoffman combined can manage that. There's just too much about the film that's sloppy: Spielberg, ordinarily such a gifted manipulator of tone and emotion, offers no throughline, the plot is much too full of holes, the characters are trite garbage. There's not enough magic to compensate for that - which is not to say that there's no magic, but it's pretty thready and thin for such an elaborate fantasy that seems to have been so important to its director, for whatever reason.