Kyle Cubr reviews “Hook” for Cine-File Chicago

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There’s a portentous scene in Steven Spielberg’s HOOK where Peter Banning (really Peter Pan, played by Robin Williams) first encounters Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) in Neverland, desperate to save the children, his children, whom Hook had kidnapped from Wendy’s London townhouse. Hook lured Peter to Neverland in order to reclaim his power over the Great White Father who had cut off his hand, thus enticing the crocodile that haunts his psyche; the caveat in Spielberg’s imagining, however, is that Banning, having grown up and now a work-obsessed lawyer, has no memories of his fantastical origins. “Oh, come on Peter, pick up your weapon,” Hook says, sly, narrative trickery leading one to wonder how there could possibly be an hour and a half of runtime left following the storied showdown. “All right,” Peter replies, deftly pulling from his pocket a checkbook and pen instead of a sword. “How much?” This scene, reminiscent of its era, when wallets were fat and family values were an unctuous talking point, not only encapsulates the central conflict of the film, which is really one of the interior, a conflict between Peter’s older and younger self, but also serves as the perfect metaphor for both the film’s rocky inception and its even stonier reception. HOOK, a sequel of sorts to J.M. Barrie’s 1911 novel Peter and Wendy, surely ranks among Spielberg’s most youthful films, bravely asserting a kid’s—and even an adult’s—right to embrace childhood rather than encouraging feigned maturity, though its budget was certainly more developed—capping out at $70 million, more than $30 million over the projected budget, it was Spielberg’s most expensive production to date, and, even though sandwiched between the third installment of his INDIANA JONES trilogy and the first of several JURASSIC PARK-adjacent spectacles, it still holds a spot amongst his costliest endeavors. The bloat was evident to critics; in his review for the New York Times, Vincent Canby astutely notes that “[t]o be profitable, it must be all things to as many people as possible, including kids who can identify with a 40-year-old man in a midlife crisis, and 40-year-old men in midlife crises who long to fight pirates with cardboard cutlasses.” Indeed, it’s a self-reflexive amalgamation of auteurist fixations, from childhood wonder and the trials and tribulations of fatherhood (Spielberg had wanted to make the film in 1985 but temporarily abandoned it after his son was born) to an almost transcendental fascination with displaced imagination and the frustratingly impalpable nature of world building. Its merits—of which there are many, despite what practically every critic at the time may have written—are rooted in these career throughlines. I and most everyone I know in my age group consider HOOK a childhood classic; I have only fond memories of Williams’ warm gaze, Hoffman’s Minnelli-esque villain, the whimsical multi-colored paint that replaces both food and weaponry, and, of course, chants of “Rufio! Rufio! Rufio!” (A cursory Google search reinforces these claims, a number of revisionist think pieces written by 20- and 30-something critics for the film’s 25th anniversary last year topping the results.) Adult Peter’s dilemma mirrors not just Spielberg’s, but also that of a certain milieu of creative men torn between their work and personal lives; a privileged position, to be sure, one typically afforded to them by their spouses—it’s a shame that Peter’s wife Moira, who’s also Wendy’s granddaughter, doesn’t have a bigger presence. Though problematic in nature, this dynamic is hyper-respective to the Bush Senior era, when many a family-oriented film had at its core a neglectful father and overcompensating mother. One particularly endearing aspect of the film is its sweaty realism and rough-hewn set design, though, interestingly enough, Spielberg has lamented the de facto scrappiness. “I’m a little less proud of the Neverland sequences,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 2011, “because I’m uncomfortable with that highly stylized world that today, of course, I would probably have done with live-action character work inside a completely digital set. But we didn’t have the technology to do it then, and my imagination only went as far as building physical sets and trying to paint trees blue and red.” (Unfortunately, he says the last part like it’s a bad thing.) Also compelling are the performances: Williams is reliably charismatic, but it’s Hoffman who really steals the show. His Hook represents, albeit entertainingly, a frightening alternative to Peter’s eventual epiphany: old, alone (save Smee) and still haunted by the past. Spielberg once us again reminds us that, yes, we do have to grow up, but it doesn’t have to be so bad.

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