Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, finally did. Now he’s Peter Banning (Robin Williams), a workaholic American lawyer unwilling to spend time with his kids Maggie (Amber Scott) and Jack (Charlie Korsmo). Peter, his wife Moira (Caroline Goodall) and the children fly over to London for a Christmas reunion with Granny Wendy (Maggie Smith). While the grownups attend a banquet held in Wendy’s honour, sinister forces kidnap Maggie and Jack. The Bannings are devastated, but Granny Wendy reveals Peter’s true identity and later that night, he receives a visit from Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts). She flies Peter to Never Land where the hapless lawyer survives his first encounter with Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) and Smee (Bob Hoskins). Reunited with his Lost Boys - now under the leadership of Rufio (Dante Basco) - Peter must recapture the flying, fighting hero of yore before Hook finalises his evil scheme to corrupt Maggie and Jack.
Much like Saint Jude, this writer is hopelessly drawn to lost causes. And Steven Spielberg’s unloved Peter Pan sequel remains a doozy. Even as a youngster, who worshipped Spielberg, Peter Pan and Robin Williams, and rather enjoyed this film, one could empathise with those who felt letdown. Spielberg’s effervescent sense of wonder always seemed a perfect match with J.M. Barrie’s classic tale of adventure, magic and heartrending emotion. Audiences were hoping for a film that combined the pulse-pounding action of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) with the heartache and joy of E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982). That’s a tall order, even for the great auteur of American blockbusters, and it wasn’t what we got. By 1991, fatherhood and a yearning for artistic ‘respectability’ left Spielberg a very different filmmaker. His long-gestating Peter Pan project morphed into something else, as he latched onto James V. Hart’s lacklustre script on the strength of its concept: Peter Pan grows up.
Why, you might ask, would anyone want the irrepressible boy hero to grow up? Isn’t his eternal youth the whole point? Well, yes but look closer at Hook’s story and you’ll catch a glimmer of what Spielberg intended: a grownup revisits his childhood, his conclusions coloured by life lessons learnt along the way, after one last glorious adventure he embraces the future, his children. There lies a great film hidden inside that concept, and while Hook isn’t it, one sincerely hopes Spielberg makes that movie someday. Hook is a disappointment, but it isn’t a disaster. Neither is it Spielberg’s worst. 1941 (1979), The Color Purple (1985), Always (1989) and The Terminal (2004) are similarly flawed, yet each contain moments of brilliance. Spielberg is as fascinating in failure as he is in success.
Let’s dispense with the bad stuff first. The story grinds to halt the moment Peter touches down in Never Land. Even with Banning’s children imperilled there is no sense of urgency. Captain Hook offers little threat beyond attempting to mould Jack into his son. Without a driving narrative, Peter’s interaction with the Lost Boys feels purposeless, as scenes veer from cloying (overly cutesy performances from the boys and Amber Scott as Maggie) to crass (fart gags, Peter’s playground insult: “Nearsighted gynaecologist!”). Spielberg once claimed he rejected Harry Potter because it would have been “like shooting fish in a barrel”. There is a sense he felt that way here, indulging himself with pointless celebrity cameos from Glenn Close and Phil Collins (although David Crosby is unexpectedly amusing as a pirate).
What vexes most about Hook is there are good elements here, hopelessly intertwined with the bad. A perfect encapsulation is the scene where the Lost Boys refuse to accept Banning as Peter Pan, until one little lad forces him to smile and declares: “Oh there you are, Peter!” It’s a moment as touching as anything in E.T., but then swiftly ruined with some slapstick shouting. So what does work? Spielberg’s visual invention remains wondrous to behold: the reoccurring hook imagery, the circular tracking shots that mirror the circular narrative, the tantalizing build-up to the children’s abduction, Smee’s parade through town bearing the silver hook, and Peter’s joyous flight and transformation into Pan. The Kensington scenes pack a lot of charm (especially the aged orphans salute to Wendy), and Banning’s journey to Never Land is suitably magical. His sensual encounter with the mermaids, and hapless verbal sparring with pirates are delightful. Incidentally, the couple kissing on the bridge when Tinkerbell flies by are George Lucas and Carrie Fisher.
Robin Williams is pretty good as the flustered Banning, but lost as Peter Pan because the script gives him nothing to do except laugh, fight and declare love for his kids. A more interesting take might have been to have him switch between the Banning and Peter Pan personas, perhaps with a child actor, building up the drama. Will he forget his family, stay with Tink and have fun in Never Land, or give up immortality to save them? Dustin Hoffman is an exuberant Hook, a cross between Basil Rathbone and Terry-Thomas, and his performance often makes this feel like the most expensive pantomime ever made. Again, the script gives him little to do, but he remains a pleasure to watch. Julia Roberts is a tomboyish, almost asexual Tinkerbell (although Banning admires her legs), and poor in comparison to Disney’s glamorous minx or Ludivine Sagnier’s enchanting pixie in Peter Pan (2003). But at times she’s appealingly feisty, particularly when super-strong Tink wallops pirates into the air. Critics disliked it, but the scene where she grows full-size and offers her heart to Peter is beautifully filmed and offers a welcome dose of romance and emotion. Speaking of which, this story badly needs a Wendy. Maggie Smith twinkles delightfully as Granny Wendy, and a young Gwyneth Paltrow is radiant in flashbacks, but without the character’s continuous presence much of the romance and resonance remains missing.
John Williams contributes one of his loveliest scores, and the handsome photography by Dean Cundey benefits from Spielberg’s ingenious ability to play with light. It’s high time he ditched those gritty Janusz Kaminski visuals and recovered some of his fairytale warmth. The rousing assault on Hook’s pirate galleon is thrillingly staged and there remains an intriguing subtext to Rufio‘s death. Rufio dies while Peter’s back is turned, and some claim this was Spielberg’s attempt to deal with the accidental deaths of two Vietnamese children, that took place when he was absent from the set of Twilight Zone: the Movie. Nothing explains the presence of the inert, rubber crocodile (How could Hook kill the one thing he fears?) that renders the climax nonsensical. The concluding scenes in London do have a glimmer of magic, though closer in tone to Mary Poppins (1964) than Peter Pan. Recent rumblings on the internet suggest a generation who grew up watching Hook still embrace it as adults. A failure perhaps, but not entirely without merit. Maybe someday, when he has grandchildren, Spielberg will deliver a real ode to childhood worthy of E.T. and Peter Pan.
His best films combine thrills with a childlike sense of wonder, but when he turns this to serious films like The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich and Bridge of Spies these efforts are, perhaps, less effective than the out-and-out popcorn movies which suit him best. Of his other films, 1941 was his biggest flop, The Terminal fell between two stools of drama and comedy and one-time Kubrick project A.I. divided audiences; Hook saw him at his most juvenile - the downside of the approach that has served him so well. Also a powerful producer.