Steven Spielberg’s Hook: What Went Wrong?

Spielberg's Hook boasted a star cast, a prime release slot, and was set to be the big hit of 1991. So, what happened?

Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook

If you’ve never quite warmed to Hook, then you’re not alone. Its director, Steven Spielberg, apparently isn’t much of a fan of it either. In fact, let’s leave the “apparently” out of it. In an interview with the Kermode & Mayo radio show while promoting the film Lincoln, he was pretty candid. “I want to see Hook again,” he told them. “I still don’t like that movie. I’m hoping some day I’ll see it again and perhaps like some of it.”

Hook was something of a disappointment all around. TriStar Pictures gambled heavily on the film – not that it appeared much of a gamble on the surface – and the then-depressed film industry was looking to the star-laden blockbuster to inject fresh life into 1991’s box-office numbers. Another E.T.-scale success was expected.

But it never happened.

Not that Hook flopped (although the far cheaper The Addams Family did equivalent business in the US around the same time). By the time the film had finished its theatrical run, the movie had taken over $300 million at the global box office. That was a lot of money in the early ’90s, although so was Hook‘s $70 million budget. Had Terminator 2: Judgment Day not become the first $100 million movie that summer, the focus may have been more on the cost of the film, which at that stage was one of the five most expensive of all time.

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“We Don’t Wanna Grow Up”

Robin Williams as Peter's dad

So how does Hook stand up? I recruited my children to help answer that. I find it interesting to try and see the films I grew up with through their eyes, and while I was in my late teens by the time Hooklanded (and we didn’t get it in UK cinemas until Easter 1992), I still remember the excitement of going to see it, tempered slightly by the memory of me looking at my watch as often as Captain Hook tried to avoid anything ticking.

Thus, my six-year old daughter and my 11-year old son feasted their eyes on the film. And – spoiler! – they quite liked it. My daughter warmed to it more, but both were fidgeting long before the exhausting 144 minute running time was up.

And in fact, bloat is one of Hook‘s problems.

The film, as you probably know, is the tale of what happens when Peter Pan grows up. As it turns out, he turns into an early ’90s corporate suit, glued to an oversized mobile phone and not engaging with his children.

Worse, he goes to a meeting at the office, rather than his son’s baseball game.

Worse, he shouts at his kids.

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Worse, he takes a phone call during his daughter’s play.

Worse, he… well, you get the idea.

But just in case you don’t, a good 20 minutes is spent establishing why Peter Banning (played by Robin Williams) is such a terrible ’90s dad. Hulk Hogan, in the film Suburban Commando, got across just as much about the era with the line “this is the ’90s, I’m gonna sue ya” than the extended prologue we get with Hook. And it’s not until Banning and his incredibly patient family – there’s a $5 billion deal to be done, y’know – arrive in London that the film finally starts to splutter into life.

Maggie Smith in Hook

There are, I feel, moments in Hook that remind you of better films, and when they’re sat upside in Granny Wendy’s house going to bed, I did wonder about sticking Labyrinth on.

But then we get Dame Maggie Smith, with her performance leading me to wonder if she was always this age. She is, of course, brilliant, and while conflict is being set up between Banning and his son in these early stages (ready to be fairly easily resolved later), Smith is as magnetic as she always is. She leaves you rooting for the fact that her stories are true.

The Media Circus

Tinkerbell in Hook

Enter Tinkerbell.

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Premiere article going behind the scenes of Hook back in December 1991 – as with most of the media at the time – was slightly obsessed with Julia Roberts in the role. Primarily because of the troubles she was going through off-screen rather than her work on it. In fact, set rumors – and this was in a pre-internet age – were damning. Roberts, we were led to believe, was difficult to work with. She was “Tinkerhell,” according to a report in the Premiere piece, and even the article – which was a supportive one – describes her as a “curious presence” on set, “sometimes somber, sometimes at the near edge of hysteria.”

If that was indeed true, who could blame her? Her proposed marriage earlier that year had collapsed, and she’d then been hospitalized with a particularly strong case of flu. That, and every tabloid on the planet was seemingly after a story about her.

Watch Hook on Amazon

At the time of shooting Hook, Roberts was still in her early 20s. Who of us could deal with what she went through at that age, for better or worse? Spielberg, to be fair, defended his star. “Julia probably went through the most trying times of her life, and it was simply bad timing for all of us that she happened to start on Hook at that low point,” adding that he thought her performance “is terrific.”

I bring all this up because it does seem to have had some impact on the screen. Tinkerbell is a supporting role in Hook, but she’s the character that basically glues the grown up world and the Neverland world together. And for whatever reason, she seems a bit flat.

We’re in the age before CG dominance in blockbusters, so Spielberg is playing clever tricks in keeping her miniature against all the other characters, but it feels and looks like there’s distance. Inevitably, a modern Blu-ray transfer shows the joins a little, but even so, Tinkerbell is one of the parts of the Hook jigsaw that doesn’t seem to work too well.

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The biggest one though – and this remains as much a surprise to write now as it was then – is Dustin Hoffman. His Captain Hook makes you pine for Jason Isaacs, as we regularly do. It’s as if there’s a tonal misjudgement here.

Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook

Hook himself, bluntly, comes across as a pantomime fool (he’s even de-wigged at the end!), save for one or two brutal moments that feel more out of character than defining parts of how he’s supposed to be. When he kills Dante Basco’s Rufio, there’s a sense of “where did that come from?” It doesn’t help that the script – which I’ll come to – asks us to believe that Hook has waited decades to enact his revenge on Peter Pan, then gives him a few days to go off and train (this is the same screenplay that, when their kids are kidnapped, has the Banning parents sit around quietly chatting, with little sign of panic).

Furthermore, his key plan to defeat his nemesis – given to him by Bob Hoskins’ far more entertaining Smee – is to befriend Peter’s eldest son. Even in the early ’90s, that felt wrong.

It’s fitting that affable old Hook’s demise comes when an apparently-dead crocodile lands on his head, and then he mysteriously disappears into said croc’s stomach. Even if there’s still, even now, a sense of “was that it?” about it.

But then, ironic given that his name is in the title, and that the running time is so elongated, there’s barely any room for Captain Hook in the movie. Instead, the script focuses more on Peter Pan’s family problems, Tinkerbell, and the Lost Boys.

Tick Tock Tick Tock

Robin Williams in Hook

The problem there is there’s nothing in Hook that you can’t see coming a mile away. We weren’t even in the era where every secret was given away in the trailer months ahead here, and the word “spoiler” was rarely used around movies.

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But did anyone go in to see Hook not knowing that Banning would become Peter Pan? Even a character like Rufio, who dislikes Peter when they meet: was anyone in any doubt that they’d end up chums?

Yet the process is so very drawn out. Peter doesn’t find his happy thought until over halfway through the movie – over 70 minutes in! Until then, he’s been the grumpy, confused twit with the mobile phone. In a story with few surprises as it stood, it felt exhausting waiting for Robin Williams to get his tights on.

Look what Spielberg did next to get a flavor as to how to work the balance. Jurassic Park is a two hour film. Take the immediate beginning off, and the leisurely animals that we meet early on, and you get 45 minutes or so of build, and 75 minutes of release. James Cameron’s triumphant Aliens extended edition keeps you waiting just over an hour to meet the xenomorphs properly, and layers in plenty to keep you interested up to that moment. But even Cameron knew he had to release them eventually.

Hook just takes too long to do anything. It’s as if all concerned got blinded by how attractive the idea of the movie was. After all, Steven Spielberg directing a grown-up Peter Pan movie? When the press wasn’t obsessing over Julia Roberts’ personal life, that was the other key message. The Peter Pan of modern cinema, directing the story of when Peter Pan grew up. They must have doubled the budget for the Christmas party there and then.

Robin Williams as Peter Pan

Yet placed in the context of Spielberg’s career, Hook came at a crossroads of sorts. He’d just come off the back of the raging success of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade(Hook would repeat a marketing trick from that, putting Spielberg himself in an early teaser trailer), but before that, there was his lowest profile movie of the 1980s, the thoroughly decent Always.

It was no secret that his filmmaking was balanced between the blockbusters he’d become renowned for, and more adult subject matter. But as liked as films such as The Color Purple and Empire Of The Sun were and are, it felt like he hadn’t quite found his voice fully in either; that he fell back a little on what people expected from a Spielberg film.

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Now I really like Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade as well, but rarely for a Spielberg film, it does feel like it got away from him just a little. It’s an awful lot of fun, but it’s the sparkling character dynamic between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery that’s the key there. Without that, it’s a long film, one that has just enough material and moments to sustain it.

Hook doesn’t, and after its release, Spielberg would set to work on the two films that would be the springboard for the next part of his career. That’d be one of his very best blockbusters, Jurassic Park, and one of his very best “older” films, Schindler’s List. In both, he hit the mark.

With Hook, he missed. And somewhat inevitably, there’s a sense that this is a mid-40s Spielberg going through a transition. But that’s easy to see now. At the time, it was just a puzzle as to how a good idea on paper had missed the mark so much.

The Upsides

Peter Pan flying

Having said all that, there’s still more to like here than I remembered. Accepting I’ve spent a good 1000 words on the downsides of Hook, I do think that Spielberg may be being a bit harsh in entirely dismissing his movie. When Peter Pan takes to the skies, is there anyone better at getting across the joyful wonder of a glorious movie set via an action sequence than Spielberg, for instance? His energetic camera, and his desire to have a boat full of extras – again, no CG, they’re all real people – is hugely cinematic. When the fun comes, it is worth waiting for, and for half an hour, Hook is very good indeed, I’d argue.

Furthermore, John Williams’ score is quite, quite brilliant. Take the “we want to be like Peter Pan” song out of it, and I rank it amongst his ten best. Not something that’s said lightly. The double CD release is an absolute treat.

Its message of family, and what matters, is delivered with the quiet sensitivity of smacking your knackers against some blunt garden shears, though. Nothing is done in half measures. And maybe the genesis of the screenplay didn’t help there.

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Hook started as one thing, after all, and ended up another. It started and ended with James V. Hart, though, who penned a screenplay for Paramount Pictures in the early ’80s, with Dustin Hoffman cast pretty swiftly as Captain Hook. Michael Jackson was considered for the lead at that point, but he declined.

Captain Hook in full pirate gear

Spielberg, who had been circling the film, dropped out in the mid-80s after pre-production had begun. And the film sat in limbo for a bit, not least when Spielberg walked away altogether to make Empire Of The Sun a few years later.

Enter Nick Castle, and the idea of an older Peter Pan. Paramount hired him to direct, and The Last Starfighter helmer got to work. Hart was still involved, the project shifted from Paramount to TriStar, and Castle recruited Robin Williams to join the still-attached Hoffman in the cast. Yet, when the pair didn’t see eye-to-eye with the new director, and when Spielberg’s name re-entered the conversation, Castle got a $500,000 pay off, and an eventual story credit. The film was then greenlit when Spielberg was installed, and a large scale success was expected.

But maybe it was all too perfect a fit. Hindsight is wonderful, but which of us, had we been running a movie studio, would have called bullshit on a project that at that stage had what looked like a pretty perfect cast, and the ideal director to make it? Still, Spielberg – a filmmaker notorious for coming in under time and under budget with his post-Jaws movies – ran 40 days over here (to 116 days) and around $15 million over budget. This one hadn’t gone to plan.

Spielberg himself gave an interview in 2011 to Entertainment Weekly, where he said that he wasn’t keen on the Neverland sequences, “because I’m uncomfortable with that highly stylized world today.” I liked those bits, though, notwithstanding the narrative issues. And my kids did too. In fact, take 25 minutes out of Hook – again, an easy thing to write in an article, and an easy thing for a non-filmmaker to say – and it may have played better, more evenly and more satisfyingly. It’d be fascinating to see how it would come out if Spielberg re-edited it now, and made an alternate cut available.

Yet contrary to reports, Hook was and is no disaster. It just feels like a missed opportunity, a film that had a few too many interesting ingredients, and nobody really imposing themselves on what it should ultimately have become.

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The bottom line for me is that it can still sit and entertain, to differing degrees, a sofa full of two children and a grumpy man. That counts for something, and a muddled mess like Hook, for my money at least, is worth a boxset of Transformers films.

But still: when the credits finally rolled, I think all three of us on my sofa just wished for slightly more than we got with Hook.