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