Sunday, August 19, 2007

DAY 19: Hook (1991)


For the first twenty years that he was making movies, Steven Spielberg was often referred to as the "Peter Pan of Hollywood," a filmmaker who simply refused to grow up, telling fantastically fun and entertaining stories with child-like sensibilities. Though this perception eventually came back to haunt him later in his career, for a long time Spielberg himself proudly wore this label (going so far as to feature a passage from J.M. Barrie's book in E.T.) and even considered doing his own adaptation of the classic tale. When Steven did finally get around to bringing a version of the Peter Pan legend to the big screen, he himself was already trying to grow up artistically and the resulting film--pardon the expression--didn't quite fly. Like Always, another disappointing effort from his "professional adolescence," one can't help but wonder what Spielberg's Peter Pan would have looked like had he made it years earlier.

The idea for Hook originated in the home of screenwriter Jim Hart when he and his family were gathered around the dinner table one night playing one of their regular "What if?" games. It was there that Jim's son Jake asked the question that would later become the film's tagline: "What if Peter Pan grew up?" Hart used the premise of Peter Pan growing up as the basis of a screenplay which he then shopped around Hollywood. At one point Nick Castle was attached to the project but eventually Spielberg came on board and such big-name starts as Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman and Julia Roberts were all hired. The budget for Hook ended up costing around $70 million. Principal photography began in February of 1991 and lasted 116 days. With a few very brief exceptions, Hook was shot entirely on studio soundstages. The enormous sets were designed by the Oscar-nominated Norman Garwood (Glory, Brazil) and brought a definite sense of theatricality, even artificiality, to them. Perhaps this was an attempt to capture the feel of a classic Hollywood fantasy like M-G-M's Wizard of Oz, but many critics felt that the film looked like it was shot more at a theme park than a movie set. "Every day it was like going to work at Disneyland," said actor Dante Basco who played the lost boys' leader Rufio.

When Hook hit theatres in the winter of 1991 it was not terribly well-received by critics. The New Yorker's Pauline Kael complained that "its tricks feel strained; we're constantly aware of the backbreaking effort it's taking to produce them, and that's no kind of magic at all." David Ansen of Newsweek stated that the the "Neverland sets are a letdown; overlit, they have a cheesy artifice of a rundown Amusement Park... Hook is a huge party cake of a movie with too much frosting. After the first delicious bite, sugar shock sets in." Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone: "The film has been engineered for merchandising potential and the widest possible appeal. What's missing is the one thing that really counts: charm."

Once again, Spielberg's usually keen casting sense seemed to betray him. Rather than hiring the right people for the roles, Spielberg felt compelled to go with major "names" (perhaps as a means to recoup much of the film's balooning budget). Hyper-active comedian turned dramatic actor Robin Williams was cast as the middle-aged businessman Peter Banning who must re-discover his forgotten identity as Peter Pan. Since Robin Williams was by this point extremely well-known for his high-spirited antics and childlike demeanor, this is an idea that by all accounts should have worked but for some reason didn't. Indeed, Williams' best scenes were his earlier ones in the film (where he played Banning) rather than his later ones (when he became Pan). At one point Kevin Kline was set to play the part but was unable to do so because scheduling around conflicts with the film Soapdish. This is unfortunate as Kline would no doubt have been able to find the right balance between the two distinct personalities.

In the role of Peter's fairy friend Tinkerbell Spielberg cast Hollywood hottest new actress fresh off of her lead role in the surprisingly successful Pretty Woman: twenty-three-year-old Julia Roberts. Spielberg's decision to cast Roberts could only have been motivated by her star status since there is little or nothing in her performance to indicate she could ever have played a satisfactory Tinkerbell. Oftentimes she seems like she's in her own movie and indeed, in many ways, she is (having shot all of her scenes in front of a blue screen to be combined later with footage of the other actors). Apparently Roberts was so difficult to work with (even Spielberg admitted in an interview that he wouldn't work with her again; a rare claim for the usually easy-going director to make) that she was given the name "Tinkerhell" by the crew. To be fair, Roberts was a little distracted at the time having recently called off her impending marriage to Kiefer Sutherland (while entering a new relationship with Jason Patric) and checked into a hospital for "exhaustion" shortly before filming.

Not every actor, however, is miscast. The real delight of the film is Dustin Hoffman's deliciously over-the-top, but nonetheless brilliant turn, as the titular Captain James Hook. Hoffman seems like he's having such fun playing the famous villain that he almost singlehandedly walks off with the movie and makes it very clear why the film is called Hook. Of course it helps that Hoffman has a great partner to play off of in most of his scenes: British actor Bob Hoskins plays Hook's faithful, but none-too-bright, lackey Smee. Hoskins makes the perfect foil for Hoffman and their scenes together are among the best in the film. Finally, even though she's only in the very beginning and very end of the film, esteemed English acress Maggie Smith (as Audrey Hepburn did in Always) brings dignity, grace and a welcome degree of genuine emotion to her role of Granny Wendy (while the role of young Wendy, seen briefly in flashbacks, was played by a then unknown actress named Gwyneth Paltrow). While the presence of these actors isn't anough to compensate for the film's massive shortcomings, they do serve as fitting, at times almost painful, reminders of what Hook could have been.

While Spielberg's vision for Neverland may have been to create a very stylized and fantastic (read "unrealistic") world, it also comes as wholly unbelievable. The only glimpses we get of the magical land outside of the enormous sets are computer generated, cartoony-looking images. Neverland never feels like an actual place; it's as two-dimensional as the animated Disney version, perhaps even more so since this one is inhabited by real people. In fact, the only two places in Neverland we really get to see are Pirate Town and the Lost Boys' hideout: a ridiculously modern playground with a basketball court and skateboard ramps. As Leonard Maltin observed, "It feels more like something out of a McDonald's commercial." It's a sad state of affairs when the most interesting environments in a Peter Pan movie are not in Neverland.

Spielberg's usual knack for directing believable performances from his child actors also seems to fail him on this project. Most of the kids in the film come off as sickenly cute or just plain annoying. The Lost boys themselves, a rag-tag band of misfits resembles nothing like the energetic, imaginative kids of Barrie's original story. The worst offender would be their punk leader Ruffio, for whom we are supposed to feel a tragic loss when he gets killed by Hook, but who, unfortunately, inspires very little in the way of sadness. Peter Pan's daughter Maggie, played by Amber Scott, is endearing (and has a nice scene where she sings the Oscar-nominated "When You're All Alone") but a little too self-consciously precocious. The only child actor who comes off as natural and inspires any degree of sympathy is Charlie Korsmo, who plays Peter Pan's son Jack. Korsmo had previously appeared in Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy and across from comic actors Bill Murray and Spielbergian collaborator Richard Dreyfus in What About Bob? Following Hook both Amber and Korsmo quit acting (although Korsmo did come back in to play a small part in 1998's Can't Hardly Wait).

As with Always, the main problem with Hook is Spielberg's tendency towards excess. He just doesn't seem to know when to quit (Spielberg himself seemed aware of this during filming as he confessed to Ivor Davis of the London Sunday Times: "Every day I came onto the set, I thought, 'Is this flying out of control?'"). He pushes every scene well past the point where it should end (the climatic fight goes on way too long), he milks every emotion well beyond our tolerance level and even stretches the film's running length well beyond its endurable limit: Hook runs 2 hour and 22 minutes, which may not seem like much in comparison to a Harry Potter movie but it's the quality, not the quantity that makes the difference. Worst of all, probably, is that Spielberg doesn't seem to know what he wants to say with Hook. Although the film contains some of his usual themes (light, flying, familial disharmony, an absentee father, etc), the main message of the story (which seems to be that it's okay to grow up as long as one doesn't lose touch with their "inner child") feels insincere. Since Spielberg himself was in the process of trying to mature as a filmmaker, Hook's moral (however well intended it may have been) just doesn't seem consistent with its style and tone. Again, had Spielberg made the film earlier in his career, there's little it doubt would have been a superior product.

Coming from a director who has a history of producing episodic movies, however, Hook is not without its moments. The entire first twenty minutes of the film (especially the eerie kidnapping of Peter Pan's children from their beds) is nicely put together. One scene in particualr shows a grown-up Peter walking into the same nurseryhe used to visit in his youth and looking at the murals around the room depicting scenes of his adventures, which naturally he doesn't remember. As Peter starts to get a chill he runs to the window and closes it (with a "hook" latch no less) as a visual reprsentation of his attempt to keep from remembering that part of his life. However, at that moment his wife Moira calls his name out from another room, Peter turns and strikes his trademark pose of standing with his hands on his hips. Williams plays it as a natural, instinctual move on Peter's part, as if he were ready for anything at that moment. It indicates that the little boy Peter is still inside there waiting to come out and in spite of the grown-up's best efforts to keep him buried, he will emerge. It's a wonderful little moment made all the more maddening by the fact that film doesn't dramatize these events satisfactorily. These early scenes, which featured prominently into the film's publicity, are so good precisely because they promise so much. It's a shame that the film doesn't deliver on those promises.

Finally, the scene that always manages to give me goosebumps when I watch it (which, incidentally, isn't that often) comes after a rather sweet little flashback sequence depicting the story of Peter's life. It's when the grown-up Peter finally finds his happy thought and sails out of the tree and into the sky (passing, in typical Spielberg fashion, in front of the sun) as the always reliable John Williams unleashes his music score in all its glory. When Peter finally learns to fly Williams' music soars. It's a great moment because it's a very long time in coming and for a brief seconds Hook becomes the movie that we hoped it could be. If everyone were completely honest wth themselves, they would admit that that was the moment that they all went into the movie to see: when the grown-up Peter Banning realized who he truly was and became Peter Pan again. Unfortunately, the elation is short-lived as Spielberg makes the mistake yet again of allowing it to go on and on and on.

After the dust settled, Hook didn't turn out to be a flop. It went on to gross $300 million worlwide ($120 million of which was grossed domestically) and receive 5 Oscar nominations, but the film isn't exactly beloved by and, in fact, is looked on today as another one of Spielberg's biggest disappointments. After two less-than-successful attempts at "serious" films, one hit sequel, and two , it was beginning to look as if Spielberg's "Midas" touch had left him. Some critics and filmgoers might have even been tempted to conclude that Spielberg was now "over the hill" as a director, that his days of making great and/or hugely successful movies were past. Spielberg demonstrated, however, with his next two films that not only they were not past, they were about to begin all over again.


TOMORROW: The dinosaurs return

31 comments:

Dan Owen said...

I'm really enjoying reading your essays, so thanks for doing them. I assume you're not slaving away on each one every day, but have them pre-written! If not, it's even more remarkable!

Great stuff and a regular read at the moment. I hope other directors get the same treatment once you recover... ;)

Anonymous said...

"Tinkerhell".....Ha ha ha. Great. Never heard that one, but it fits.

Having worked on Mona Lisa Smiles as a crew member, I will personally testify that every story you've heard about Julia Roberts is true. (and they say Emma Roberts is almost as bad.)

She was, in fact, probably the most difficult actress I've ever had to deal with on a set UNTIL I found myself getting yelled at by Kyra Sedgewick a few years later, who was Julia's equal in many ways, although, all things considered, not QUITE as dreadful; Kyra was actually nice once in a rare while, whereas Julia was a human chainsaw every single time.

Kyra and Julia, they were the worst. And there was some movie where they were both in and played sisters. Dear God, I cringe at what THAT set must have been like. That show must have been absolute, pure hell.

Oh, and to get away from the gossip for a moment and back to Spielberg: sir, I salute you. You have legatimitly managed to find something good to say about Hook. Looking back to my unhappy memories of seeing it when I was 13, I totally agree, the first half-hour is the most interesting part and fairly enjoyable. But, man, that's it. I remember my father, who likes practically anything, upon leaving the theater could'nt find anything good to say but, "Well, the special effects were neat..."

Always, Last Crusade, Hook...We're really in the pits here. It's the lowest point of Speilberg's career, and it makes the third-stage hot streak he's been on since roughly Jurassic Park / Schindler's all the more remarkable. After slogging through some of a great filmmaker's most dissapointing works, I can't wait to revel in the glory of all the amazing films we've got coming up in the next few essays.

Jerry said...

Two glaring issues that always pull me out of the movie:

- The inexplicable Glenn Close cameo (and how many times have those three words been typed consecutively?) I mean, it was ham-fistedly executed, and had no point at all;

- that awful, mugging, smarmy perf by that 'comically-overweight' African-American kid. It was a cringe-inducing role, with his eyes "buggin' out" in surprise and/or awe in all (and there were sooooo many) of the patented Spielberg "off-screen-awe-inducer" reverse-shots. It set back black performances three steps back from any 'advancement' Steven may have made in "Purple". Which was such a shame.

(I also have to add my thanks for doing such an excellent job on thjis series, Damian!)

RAR said...

Completely agree. This is the true beginning of Spielberg's "I don't know when to end the movie" syndrome. Though it is a mess and a true disappointment, this movie has little delights for me.

I've always been a huge fan of Barrie's original story and I like the interesting continuations they did to the source material: Wendy's continued love for Peter, Hook's bizarre suicidal tendencies and that cruel moment where Hook tells the kids how much happier their parents would be without them.

One of the great what ifs for me has been what if Spielberg's original Peter Pan project have been made. Would it be anything like the 2003 version? I think the new version is brilliant at times; the staging has Spielberg's trademark of multiple layers of complex visual information (helped by Michael Kahn's editing). And James Newton Howard's music does some very Williams styled riffs at times.

André Pinto said...

Hi Damian, i am a huge Spielberg fan too, and actually i am doing an essay about Spielberg themes and his mis en scene. i found many interesting things about his style. I am trying to make a sort of classification for each theme or style. I am starting to read some your fantastic analysis of this great but underevaluated artist and fortunately i am finding some conections in you text with mine. i do not know if you found this, but one of the most impressive things i found in Spielberg's work,that i think its unique, was:

1 - Reflection and refraction

2 - Character's gestures and mimics

3 - progressive quantity (hard to explain now)

i am looking forward to discuss this with you...

bye

Ted Pigeon said...

I grew up liking Hook (how can an eight-year-old not like this movie?) and have since lost interest in it, but not completely. As you mention, Damian, the first 20 minutes of the movie are really magical, particularly that brief scene you mention as Peter enters the nursery.

Maybe it was intentional, but the movie really does look so artificial, so movie-set-like that it's distracting. You can see the "ocean" (blue painted on a white wall) behind the pirate ship during the climatic battle at the end. Thet pirate town and the the lost boys tree feel so shriekingly false that you can practically detect every bit of fake leaves and squareness to the artificial trees and buildings.

The one good thing about the movie, however, is John Williams' masterful score, which marks Williams' finest stand-alone score inasmuch that one can imagine her or his own movie with that music without the poor movie it actually accompanies. I always got chills when watching the "You are the Pan" scene (and still do when I listen to the score).

And nice point about the recent Peter Pan, rar. That movie was extraordinarily imaginative: atmospheric, thematically consistent (and moving), and just plain magical, even for being such a simple and light movie.

Jerry said...

Whoops - forgot about the also-pointless cameos of David Crosby (then in the current news for his liver transplant), Phil Collins, Carrie Fisher, and George Lucas.

Steven's li'l Cameopalooza!! How cute!!

Yuck.

Jeff McMahon said...

I'm glad you mentioned that, the rest of the movie aside, John Williams's score is really good.

Todd said...

I concur with everything said here, especially on Williams' score, which is wonderful removed from the movie.

And also, especially, with props for the 2003 Peter Pan. An absolutely wonderful movie about the anxiety of growing up that just got lost in the marketplace. I think if Spielberg had tapped in to some of that anxiety (that he himself must have felt in this period) about growing up, this film would have worked better.

Cinephile said...

Another great essay. I didn't know Kevin Kline was originally cast-- he would've been great, and there would've been fun intertextual ties to his performance in Pirates of Penzance. The odd thing about Williams is that he gave another performance that same season in a different fantasy film-- The Fisher King-- and was brilliant, finding all the right notes (in a movie that's also about figuring out how to come to adulthood without losing your innocence) and modulating his performance beautifully. I agree we're in the dog years of Spielberg here, but that just makes your essays even more interesting and valuable for their insights.

Noel Vera said...

Artificiality shouldn't be a problem (think Olivier's Henry V, or much of Coppola's Dracula (I'm talking look of the film; that film has other serious problems)), and, come to think of it, Hollywood Boulevard (it is Hollywood Boulevard isn't it?) in Spielberg's own 1941. Artificial and the artificiality is exuberantly presented, no attempt or even wish to be real. This is simply ugly.

Anonymous said...

Damian - are you aware that you are being accused of plagiarism, on the spielbergfilms.com website?

http://www.spielbergfilms.com/forum/forumdisplay.php?f=3

The post discusses Duel, Columbo, and Eyes.

Joe Valdez said...

Hook is as bad as everyone's saying here and as good as everyone's saying here.

I agree that the first twenty or so minutes are good, Hoffman & Hoskins are well cast, and that John Williams' score is pretty damn excellent.

Julia Roberts may have been one of the most wretched casting decisions of all time and absolutely nothing about the way Neverland is conceived works.

When I worked at Blockbuster, I remember little kids loved this when it was first released on VHS, so at least Hook plays well to its target demographic. The same cannot be said of 1941 or Always.

It's interesting that this was Speilberg's first film of the '90s. Hook would have been the appropriate place for him tire the same way that many filmmakers of his contemporaries began to. Instead, he still had his best work ahead of him.

Bemis said...

I was seven when Hook was released, and had you asked me to list my favorite movies, it would have been high up there - it was the first movie I saw in theatres twice. However, by the time I was eight, I had completely outgrown it, which I think says something about Spielberg's target audience here.

Aside from the great performances you mentioned, Hook is pretty much indefensible. But I think it's a movie Spielberg needed to get out of his system. For any complaints about his tendency to go for the happy ending, his movies were decidedly more adult from this point on - even a big-budget B-picture like The Lost World possesses a far greater sense of irony than it would had Spielberg made it ten years earlier. Your comparison to theme park rides is astute; this is, after all, a man who had arcade games in his office like Tom Hanks in Big (Hanks, incidentally, would have been far better as Peter Pan). So Hook is a sort of exorcism of his childlike love of garish, disposable junk culture (hence the skateboarding and such). For what it's worth, it seems to have worked.

Damian said...

Anonymous:

I did not know about the plagiarism accusation on spielbergfilm.scom. I shall adress that as soon as possible. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

RC said...

yikes...that's some hook-disdain much like i've received on my own blog with my Steven-top 10 when hook made the cut.

my love for hook largely stems from a fun and enjoyable viewing experience i'm sure.

but i also love it's over the topness, casting, and music.

i just think it's pure fun.

J.J. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J.J. said...

I've always been a little bewildered by movielovers' disdain for Hook. Maybe it's because I grew up watching it from time to time. Maybe it's because I think it features Hoffman's best performance (there, I said it).

And while John Williams' score may be good, he totally ripped himself off when it was time to compose the Harry Potter theme. Listen to Hook, then listen to Potter. It's blatant and unfortunate.

Joan said...

Damian, I think you've been doing a great job here with your 31 Days project. I skimmed through the plagiarism accusation thread and wanted to comment, briefly -- many of the pulled quotes were descriptions of particular scenes, and everyone must realize that if you're summarizing dialog or action, the descriptions are all going to sound the same, because you're all describing the same events! I think it's really going too far to accuse you of plagiarism, although in the strictest sense of the word, it may be accurate. I'd reserve such accusations for times when someone has clearly ripped off major passages and/or insights, neither of which can be said of you. It is possible for more than one person to hold the same opinion of something, and at times it may difficult to the point of awkwardness to express that opinion in a completely different and fresh way.

Joseph said...

where are the new posts? i'm addicted!

Eddie said...

damian's probably occupied with making sure that he doesn't get hit with a lawsuit.

AR said...

Haven't seen it in years, but I agree on its flaws. Even when I was 14, I could tell it just didn't work. I also agree that Hoskins and Hoffman make a great team, though. It's weird that Hoffman is so good and totally unrecognizable, since he was so awful in the more recent Perfume. It reminds that he can be a great actor when he wants to be.

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Hook happens to be my favorite movie of all time.

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As you can see, we have many themes in common with your blog and we would like to publish on Mperience some of your articles.
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