When it comes to Steven Spielberg’s career, the general consensus claims Hook as his worst movie until Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out. While such a generalization may rub people the wrong way (specifically people who strongly dislike The Lost World), it does feel safe to say most people dislike the film.
Here’s why they feel that way: Hook is hokey. It has some pretty lame jokes. The first half hour is plagued with an awful sitcom-level piano score. Its Lost Boys sequences succumb to an ill-advised desire to appropriate now-dated notions of early ‘90s “cool” (yes, I am talking about Rufio here - the other Lost Boys, with their turn of the century dirty newsboys look are actually above this). Peter Pan’s kids are super obnoxious. And Pan himself just doesn’t work once Robin Williams dons that old outfit and starts flying around.
Fine. All these things are true. But anyone who knows Spielberg should assume good things are there to find as well. Hook is essentially a film made for kids, one that falls way below the bar set by many other Spielberg “kid movie” classics. From an adult perspective, however, it offers enough meat to keep it from being some kind of awful failure we should all collectively forget. If Hook really is Spielberg’s second (or third) worst film, that only confirms Spielberg’s overall supremacy.
For starters, while Hook might seem like a wild, goofy romp for children, adults who watch it might notice its wildly melancholy tone. This should be obvious right away for those familiar with the Peter Pan story. The mere idea of Pan ending up as a workaholic lawyer who barks at his kid to “grow up,” is sad enough before we even get to the part where Spielberg reveals Pan’s old pal Wendy as an elderly woman with all the reverence and tone of a tragedy.
Everyone has to get old. As we age, sadness can seep into our increasingly distant, joyful childhood memories and transform them into wistfulness, nostalgia, or even bitterness. In the context of Peter Pan, the boy who never wanted to grow up, it is an especially painful thing to see. That he grew up to be such a stiff jerk only makes it worse. His abandonment of Wendy is no small thing, nor is her response upon learning about the corporate shenanigans Peter partakes in for a living: “Peter, you’ve become a pirate.”
The Pan story always had a weird sadness under its surface. Pan and his pals, the Lost Boys, are all orphans. They enjoy unrestricted grubby-kid fun and get to have lighthearted fights with pirates (who are trying to kill them), but behind all that is the knowledge that they have no parents. Spielberg’s film acknowledges this repeatedly. When Peter gives a speech in honor of Wendy’s lifelong work finding homes for orphans (including himself), the members of his audience slowly begin to stand as he speaks, identifying themselves as other real lost boys Wendy helped save. It’s not the cheeriest beginning to a story of a guy who later learns to fling imaginary rainbow mousse at a rooster-haired knucklehead.
And don’t forget, this movie also features a scene where Captain Hook makes a play at killing himself. It’s ultimately a funny scene, but Hook’s depression is played somewhat straight. Without an adversary as strong as Pan, he is nothing. And he’s been living like that for decades. There’s not a lot of joyful comedy in a series of lines like “I want to die. There is no adventure here. Death is the only adventure left for me.” It turns out he has one adventure left, but his sentiment is not incorrect.
No one tricked Pan into growing into the kind of monster who will keep his mobile phone on during his kid’s theatrical performance. He fell in love with a girl, Wendy’s granddaughter, Moira. Then he became a father. At some point he lost his memories of even being Pan, and without those, he naturally progressed into an entirely different man, someone so preoccupied with providing for his family that he barely cares to even see them.
It may not look like it, but Hook was actually a very personal movie for Spielberg, a reaction to his fears that his heavy workload was robbing him of time with his children, essentially burdening them with the same lack of a father figure he himself suffered.
In other words, Spielberg is engaged here in ways he probably wasn’t for The Lost World, which he partially directed from a remote location, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which he seems to have made just for George Lucas. You can see this level of attention in a lot of the film’s giant sets. Elaborate as they are, they stand before obviously undefined backdrops, as if to highlight theatrical artificiality. In this context, some of the more sentimental bits (particularly Pan’s daughter singing to the stars while held captive) don’t seem so unwarranted. This is a film, but Spielberg wants it to feel a bit like theater as well.
Still, it all comes down to melancholy. At one point, Pan’s shadow leads him to a tree where he finds his and Wendy’s names carved into the wood. It’s hard not to mourn for the loss of that innocence and perfection. Now Wendy’s an old lady, Peter’s a middle-aged jerk, and Tinkerbell finally reveals her long-secret romantic feelings for Pan (which he immediately rejects). Hook doesn’t take place in some super hard world, nor does it fail to have a happy ending. But it has a lot more on its mind emotionally than most people give it credit for.