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By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 11, 1991


Steven Spielberg
Robin Williams;
Dustin Hoffman;
Julia Roberts;
Bob Hoskins;
Maggie Smith;
Charlie Korsmo;
Phil Collins;
Glenn Close;
David Crosby
Parental guidance suggested

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J.M. Barrie wrote that "All children, except one, grow up." The exception is Peter Pan, that flying, crowing embodiment of exuberant perpetual youth. But at the beginning of Steven Spielberg's "Hook," Peter Pan has grown into Peter Banning (Robin Williams), a 40-year-old mergers and acquisitions lawyer with a billowing paunch, a cellular phone holstered on his belt and a constant expression of fretting anxiety on his face. Banning doesn't remember that he was once Peter Pan; he's lost his wings and his happy thoughts along with them. And because of the incessant tinkling of his portable phone, he's in serious danger of losing his wife, Moira (Caroline Goodall), and his two kids, Jack (Charlie Korsmo) and Maggie (Amber Scott). He's the consummate soulless corporate raider, a man totally estranged from his children, and, more important, the child in himself. He's a '90s-style Lost Boy.

"Hook" is the story of Banning's redemption; it's an extravagant fable about how Banning recovers his past as Peter Pan, saving himself and his family by (please excuse the psychobabble) reclaiming his inner child. It's a '90s movie to the bone, yet another moral lesson for our time. It's also great fun: big, splashy, energetic, one-size-fits-all Hollywood entertainment. Spielberg and Co. have finally made their Disney movie -- or better yet, their film version of a theme park at Disneyland. It's sort of like "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "It's a Small World" rolled into one. It's a helluva contraption, and certainly one to be marveled at. It gives good ride.

What it doesn't do, though, is instantly take a place in your heart. For all its pomp and color, for all the talent of its contributors, it's not a movie for which you can build a deep affection. The movie is about happy thoughts, but it takes a somewhat mechanical approach to happiness. It's hard to be elated about a machine, and that's what "Hook" is -- an $80 million Happy Thought machine.

This is a surprise and a disappointment, largely because Spielberg and Williams -- the reigning Peter Pans of Hollywood -- would seem so ideally suited to the material; it's a movie, one would think, that they were both born to make. Somehow, though, the result of their collaboration seems oddly impersonal. They give their all, but not their best.

Spielberg is one of the greatest visual storytellers in movie history; the camera is his "once upon a time" device, and, at his best, he makes you feel as if you're living the story as it's taking place. In "Hook," though, he never seems to get inside his story. The problem may be partly conceptual. The style of the picture is broadly theatrical; at times, it takes on the stagy look of a big Broadway musical. (John Napier, the stage designer for "Cats" and "Les Miserables," served as the film's visual consultant.) Here, Spielberg operates more from outside the story than is usually his habit, as if he were a theater director, not a film director. Stylistically, it's a departure for him, but it's not a break that releases his true gifts. He never gives the picture wings.

The script -- which was written by Jim V. Hart and Malia Scotch Marmo -- is a nifty updating of Barrie's original, and Spielberg does an expert job of moving from the real world, where Banning and family travel to London to see their aged Aunt Wendy (Maggie Smith), to the fantasy world of Neverland, where Hook has taken Peter's kidnapped children. Our first sight of Neverland is transcendent, and some sequences here -- such as the Lost Boys' food fight and the climatic battle between them and Hook's pirates -- are blissfully directed. We're aware in these scenes that we are in the grip of a great filmmaker. We're also aware that his talents are being tailored to the purpose of creating a film that is all things to all people, a wholesome, crowd-pleasing circus with Spielberg as ringmaster.

Williams seems to be inhibited by some of the same constraints. He's not bad in the role; in fact, it fits him like a glove. But a glovelike fit isn't really to Williams's benefit; in this case it may have been a straitjacket. He seems blander here than usual, and his gift for the extraterrestrial non sequitur never shows itself. As it's conceived, the part doesn't allow him much room to bust out and flourish in the way that, say, his recent part in "The Fisher King" did. Williams gives us only some of what we might have expected, but not what we might have hoped for -- he never surprises us.

It's Dustin Hoffman who takes us by storm, not Williams. His Captain Hook is a delicious portrait of lip-smacking evil, a vain, pompous, sublimely narcissistic swine. Hoffman's performance is unapologetically theatrical, and perfectly suited to the stylized quality of the film. It's a performance in the Barrymore tradition -- grandiloquent, larger than life and a trifle tipsy. He's a prig, this Hook, and more than a little foppish. Hook allows Hoffman to cut loose in a way that Williams can't.

We see him shift moods in the space of a lightning flash, at first cajoling Peter's kids to reject their parents, then threatening to commit suicide over the demise of his career -- a routine gesture that his trusted second mate, Smee (Bob Hoskins), is expected to interrupt; we see him exchange his trademark hook for a baseball mitt in a pickup game staged to woo Peter's son, Charlie, away from his father, and we get to see him fence in his high-heeled pumps. Everything Hoffman does here shows him at his hammy best; his performance is a glory.

The drama turns on whether Banning can recover his happy thoughts, transform himself into the Peter Pan of his past, and rescue his children. His guide is his childhood companion, Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts), who loves him and has faith that she can whip this bloated Peter into fighting trim. Roberts's fairy role is a small one (pun intended), and if there's a star in Hollywood who's less well suited to being cut down in size, it's this one. Roberts has a voluptuous, abundant spirit on screen, but her pixie character here doesn't allow her to express this quality. She's shrunk down, literally, and for the most part wasted.

The movie falls slightly into the doldrums while we're waiting for Peter to rediscover himself; even though we know it's coming, it seems to take forever. When he finally remembers his past, the story takes a neat turn. The movie isn't simply about the happiness of childhood; it's about the pleasures of growing up too. When Peter finally remembers his Happy Thought, it's not a childhood memory that lifts him off the ground, but a flashback to an adult epiphany. To take wing, Peter recalls the birth of his son, and in doing so, he remembers why he chose to grow up -- and abandon Neverland forever -- in the first place: He wanted to be a father. The movie suggests, then, that there are two varieties of Lost Boys -- those who never grow up, and those who grow up but lose the child within them. That's what Hook and his men represent: the evil of lost innocence.

Life, Peter finally decides at the film's end, is the greatest adventure. Real life. He's outgrown Neverland, but Neverland was a dead end to begin with. It's a potent message, but it might sink in deeper if we sensed that Spielberg had left Neverland behind too -- if he perceived the grown-up world as something other than just another pavilion in the big theme park of life.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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