As his remake of West Side Story begins its theatrical run with critical raves and awards buzz, perpetually successful filmmaker Steven Spielberg may be in a celebratory mood. If he wants to keep the 2021 party going, he has a few weeks left to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Raiders Of The Lost Ark or the 20th anniversary of his secret masterpiece A.I.; fans could even take note of how his Adventures of Tintin/War Horse double feature is turning 10. What Spielberg may prefer to leave to the likes of millennial-driven entertainment publications is the fact that his Peter Pan-grows-up adventure fantasy Hook, widely if not universally considered his worst movie, turns 30 today.
Personally, I’d give that particular worst-of-Spielberg crown to Always, the terminally miscast A Guy Named Joe remake that immediately preceded Hook—or maybe, if the category could expand to include shorts, his risible segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie. But then, I was 11 in 1991, when Hook came out. I am the exact right Xennial age to forgive the movie its myriad excesses and embarrassments, just as those a few years older than me are liable to forgive The Goonies and those a few years younger may forgive Hocus Pocus, on and on in both directions throughout the history of chintzy kids’ movies.
The strange thing about Hook is that Spielberg made one of those chintzy kids’ movies directly—and at a budget-busting expense. Spielberg’s influence is all over ’80s and ’90s kid-adventure aesthetics (and their 2010s echo-boom), sometimes even with his direct participation as a producer. Yet as much as Hook was thought of, back in ’91, as an almost nauseatingly pure distillation of Spielberg’s sensibility (including by Spielberg himself, who called it “typecasting”), it doesn’t much resemble his other work as a director, even from his supposed ’80s heyday. Look at the big-ticket adventure movies he made in the decade leading up to Hook: Three of them are Indiana Jones movies, and one is E.T., a gentle and personal family film with huge emotional lift but little overblown spectacle.
The slam-bang derring-do of Indy is largely absent from Hook, as is E.T.’s childhood naturalism; nothing in Spielberg’s Peter Pan sequel is as viscerally grubby as the way E.T. evokes wearing unwashed pajamas while feeling clammy from fever. Children do drive the story in Hook, of course. Jack (Charlie Korsmo) and Maggie (Amber Scott), spawn of Peter Banning (Robin Williams), née Pan, are kidnapped by Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) to lure Peter back to Neverland; much of the movie is about the Lost Boys retraining Peter so that he can rescue his kids, who Hook meanwhile attempts to turn against their neglectful lawyer dad. Despite all the kids running around the movie, though (and quite unlike E.T., or the then-recent Empire Of The Sun), Hook unfolds from an adult’s point of view.
Indeed, for a movie packed with kid appeal and warnings about growing up too much or too fast, it’s very much a movie by a dad. Fatherhood informs some of the best moments: Spielberg stages the kidnapping of Peter’s children beautifully, keeping the actual disappearance offscreen to focus on the ominous build and subsequent terrifying discovery—a parent’s nightmare with an eerie fantastical glow. Later, when Peter finally re-learns how to fly and re-claims his Pan identity, it’s because his Happy Thought is remembering the birth of his son. What a lovely notion, to recapture youthful mojo by embracing an obvious sign of aging.
More often, though, the movie’s lavish garishness brings to mind a different kind of parenting: a moneyed father overcompensating with endless expensive gifts of varying appropriateness. You kids love those Ninja Turtle guys, right? What if the Lost Boys were more like that, and also rode skateboards? (Even at 11, this struck me as pandering.) Make sure Peter Pan slam-dunks a basketball at some point. And don’t you love the famous Julia Roberts laugh from Pretty Woman? Sure, everyone loves that, let’s get that. Spare no expense.
In that way, Hook plays like a cheap and disposable kiddie toy line crossed with a lavish, old-fashioned Hollywood backlot spectacular, with Lost Boy action figures running around its elaborate sets and crowds of extras. It shares this cast-of-hundreds hubris with 1941, Spielberg’s other notorious failure (and which, like Hook, was more a failure of reputation than an outright financial flop). If anything, Hook is the more lugubrious production of the two. In a 1991 Premiere feature released before the film, Spielberg talks about the belt-tightening going on in Hollywood in the early ’90s, and how he’s lucky to make a large-scale project at a time when some studios will only commit to one “megamovie” a year—a potent reminder, in case anyone needed it, that three decades is a long time gone.
With Hook’s “megamovie” origins in mind, the recent West Side Story feels like a vastly more successful attempt to merge Spielberg’s movie-brat virtuosity with old-fashioned big-studio resource-marshaling. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that Hook was bandied about as one more possible musical from Spielberg; though West Side Story is a more mature work in addition to being a leaner and more kinetic one, it speaks to a similar impulse in Spielberg’s work.
For that matter, everything Spielberg has directed since Hook has been more artistically successful. Yet 30 years on, it also seems like a more enduring title in his back catalog than, say, Tintin or The Terminal. Speaking as a former 11-year-old, I’ll say that Hook was a vivid and memorable experience not in spite of the deeply questionable design of Neverland but because of it. The art direction that belongs in the Ornately Fake-Looking Early ’90s Sets Hall Of Fame with Toys and Super Mario Bros. only adds to the sense that someone has built a massive playground for the Hook’s target audience. “To a 10-year-old, I’m huge,” Captain Hook drolly quips when Peter remarks that he remembers his adversary looking bigger, and he could be speaking for the whole movie. To a young moviegoer, it’s huge, and it has everything: scares, laughs, tears, death, Bob Hoskins, sword fights, fairies, pirates, penguins, food fights, and a few songs.
And Robin Williams. There’s additional and unintended pathos 30 years later, watching a departed actor reclaim his inner child. The loss of Williams as well as Hoskins only furthers Hook’s case as a particularly retro object, both of its early-’90s era and as a throwback to the overlong all-ages Hollywood productions of the 1960s (also often musicals), before the late-decade crash that temporarily disabled them.
This, too, makes it an outlier in Spielberg’s filmography. His work has its moments of excess and some movies that demonstrably spring from a particular era, but neither of those qualities define his filmography. His work bounces around through enough periods, backwards through history or forwards into a fantastical future, to feel timeless more often than not. Hook covers the “not,” which makes it a potent hit of cheap-yet-expensive nostalgia for certain VHS-raised kids. It’s not his worst movie so much as his most and least, all at once. Maybe those millennial Hook fans instinctively understand what a rare event they were witnessing: the biggest-ever director enthusiastically debasing himself with a bustling, eye-rolling, kid-pleasing spectacle.