Though you wouldn’t suspect it from his place as the pasha of popular entertainment, Steven Spielberg’s soul is in conflict. Yes, he delights in the bravura mechanics of show business, in pumped-up production design and sets that cost the Earth, but he also wants to create the purest enchantment, to conjure up those charmed moments that make a movie unforgettable.
Few directors can do either thing well, and the problem for Spielberg, who is capable of both, is that they tend to get in each other’s way. Worse than that, arrogant spectacle so smothers gentle magic that it tends to be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a $60-million movie to genuinely touch the heart. In “Hook” (citywide), the outcome of that particular struggle is in doubt until the end, and while enchantment just manages to hold its own, it is not a simple task.
Though this is his 11th feature as a director, “Hook” is clearly a project Spielberg has been pointed toward for his entire career. Though nominally a sequel to J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” “Hook” is really a modern reworking of that 1904 play, whose subtitle, “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” has often been applied to the director himself. “I’ve always been Peter Pan,” Spielberg told Premiere magazine. “That’s why I wanted to do this movie.”
In truth, “Hook’s” script, which has a rather ponderous credit line (by Jim V. Hart and Malia Scotch Marmo from a story by Hart and Nick Castle based on the works of Barrie), revolves around a quite adroit and appealing premise, albeit one that chooses to reveal itself with what almost might be called reluctance.
“Hook” brightly opens at a school version of the Barrie play, with young Maggie (Amber Scott) playing Wendy, the girl who befriends Peter and goes with him to Neverland. In the audience are Maggie’s family, including her portable-phone-addicted father Peter (Robin Williams) and her brother Jack (Charlie Korsmo, the urchin from “Dick Tracy”) who is worried, justifiably it turns out, that his dad will miss his big baseball game the next day.
Peter, it seems, is a corporate raider of the first water, a mergers and acquisitions type who (raise your hand if this sounds familiar) thinks his business is more important than his family. Still, he and his swell wife Moira (Caroline Goodall) do find time to take the whole family to London where Gran Wendy (Maggie Smith), Moira’s grandmother and supposedly the little girl who told J. M. Barrie those Peter Pan stories in the first place, is going to be honored by a local orphanage. Peter was once an orphan himself, it seems, until Gran Wendy found an American couple to adopt him.
When the adults return from the orphanage banquet, however, they are in for a horrible shock: Both Maggie and Jack are gone and an ornate ransom note claims that one Captain Hook is the responsible party. The police naturally view this as some kind of regrettable prank, but Gran Wendy solemnly pulls Peter aside and tells him a truth he is totally unprepared to hear: Those Barrie stories were not fiction but fact and he himself is no ordinary orphan but the real Peter Pan, now grown older. Worse than that, in order to save his children from Captain Hook in Neverland he must make himself both remember who he was and believe it enough to make it happen again.
Though Peter’s adventures in Neverland are clearly what the film is all about, Spielberg almost dawdles in getting us there, spending what feels like forever in setting up the family’s not very original emotional conflicts. Yet, even here, magic does peek through, specifically in Smith’s glowing performance as Gran Wendy. Expertly aged to a believable 92, Smith has the regal, otherworldly air of the perfect fairy-tale enchantress, and she sets a resonant tone that “Hook” is only sporadically able to match.
Once the scene shifts--as it inevitably must--to Neverland, the acting gets broader. Best here is Bob Hoskins, as Smee, the rascally pirate major-domo, all beady eyes and energetic bad intentions, who just about steals this part of the picture from both Julia Roberts’ fetching Tinkerbell, a pep talk with wings, and Dustin Hoffman’s Hook, a technically expert and convincing performance that at times plays more lifeless than it intends to.
As for Williams’ Peter, while it’s true that few other actors could successfully portray the eternal boy, the divided nature of the script makes it difficult for us to be as much on his side as we often want to be. The first third of the film finds Williams playing a heedless yuppie, a role seriously at odds with his persona. Then he spends a rather tedious stretch of time in Neverland cracking one-liners and trying to convince anyone who’ll listen that he is not what the Lost Boys reverentially call “the Pan.”
In order to fly again, Peter has to recover the boy in himself, and, interestingly enough, that is what Spielberg has to do as well in order to finally lift this top-heavy movie off the ground for a satisfying finale. It is no easy task, for if ever there was a project that came close to being crushed by its own visual splendors, this is it.
One million board feet of lumber, 25,000 gallons of paint, 260 tons of plaster and 10 miles of rope, not to mention tens of millions of dollars, were expended on “Hook’s” super-elaborate sets, including a full-size pirate ship and accompanying wharf. Unfortunately, not only do the results look too much like a too-elaborate Disneyland (hiring wizardly but very theatrical designer John Napier as visual consultant was perhaps not the best idea), its very excessiveness squeezes the life and the joy out of far too much of “Hook,” making it play like the loud and hollow “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” not the memorable “E.T.”
Still, whenever you’ve just about given up on Spielberg and his PG production, he comes up with a scene, like having one of the smallest of the Lost Boys (Isaiah Robinson) pulling on Peter’s adult face until he sees the child within, that wins you over by working simply but completely.
Finally, then, the regrettable thing about Spielberg having had to wait so long to film his dream is not what “Hook” is, but what it might have been. For very much like Peter, it has clearly gotten harder for this director to break free of the lure of material things and believe in simple magic. And whatever problems his “Hook” has, there are none that making the film on half of its budget wouldn’t have cured.
Dustin Hoffman: Hook
Robin Williams: Peter
Julia Roberts: Tinkerbell
Bob Hoskins: Smee
Maggie Smith: Gran Wendy
Charlie Korsmo: Jack
Caroline Goodall: Moira
Amber Scott: Wendy
An Amblin Entertainment production, released by TriStar. Director Steven Spielberg. Producers Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Gerald R. Molen. Executive producers Dodi Fayed, Jim V. Hart. Co-producers Gary Adelson, Craig Baumgarten. Screenplay by Jim V. Hart and Malia Scotch Marmo, story by Jim V. Hart & Nick Castle, based on the original stage play and books written by J. M. Barrie. Cinematographer Dean Cundey. Editor Michael Kahn. Costumes Anthony Powell. Music John Williams. Production design Norman Garwood. Visual consultant, John Napier. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.