I was always planning on talking about Hook on TVOvermind. It’s just too good of a movie – not to mention too grossly overlooked in today’s cinematic discourse – not to. And when I decided to start defending everybody’s favorite punching bags, this was one of the first movies to come to mind. But recent events have caused a change in context for this discussion, and while I mourn that this won’t be an outright defense of the movie, the uncanny degree to which it entwines with the incredibly fun Christopher Robin (2018) are just too spot-on to pass up.
Although I can’t help but roll my eyes whenever somebody erroneously complains “they don’t make ‘em like they used to,” because they (whoever they happen to be) are pretty much always wrong when they do, there is, in fact, an exception to this rule. The fact of the matter is that they don’t actually make family movies like they used to: not kids movies, not animated movies – family movies.
I’m talking about the box office mainstays of my childhood that were always there to bridge the gap between what the grownups in the room wanted to see and what the kids in the room want to see: movies like The Sandlot (1993), The Three Musketeers (1993) and Jumanji (1995). These were movies that grew up with you, seeming to take on new and more complicated meanings as you were continuously drawn back to them again and again (even when you went through your “No, Mom, I’m an adult now! I don’t like cartoons anymore!” phase) and you could always con a parent or older sibling into watching it with you.
Seemingly a dime a dozen back in the 90’s, this substrata of cinema has seemingly dried up in the decades that followed. Sure, you might occasionally get a Muppets (2011) or a BFG (2016), but that’s a once every year sort of deal. If you can’t stand watching cartoon animals for 90 minutes at a stretch or can’t convince your little ones to watch something more “adult,” well, you’re just plain out of luck these days. This year’s entry into the now-annualized “throwback family movie” genre is the deceptively great Christopher Robin: a movie that traces its narrative DNA all the way back to the likes of Marry Poppins (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965). For our 90’s-centric purposes, however, Hook (1991) was the very first movie to come to mind.
It really is uncanny just how similar these movies are on their surface. In both, the iconic child-protagonists of famous children’s stories (in Hook’s case, Peter Pan) have grown up into stodgy fathers whose laser-focus on being good employees necessarily means that they ultimately prove to be inferior dads. Although they’ve convinced themselves that their childhood exploits were nothing but the last lingering memories of their vestigial childhood fancy, characters from their old life breach into their new one, complicating it in ways that they couldn’t possibly have foreseen.
As the film’s title suggests, the impetus for Hook’s story is that Captain Hook kidnaps Peter’s young children, causing him to return to Neverland to rescue them. After proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that he’s no longer the Pan that he used to be, he teams up with Tinkerbell (played by a pint-sized Julia Roberts and in many ways analogous to Christopher Robin’s Pooh in terms of function and characterization), who brings him back to the Lost Boys (now under new management) so that he can learn how to be a kid again: how to fly, how to fight, how to crow.
Between the two movies, Christopher Robin is definitely the more subdued of the two. It features a lazy, three-act structure that plays out more like a series of vaguely connected short stories than a driving, connected Hollywood narrative. It’s characters are softer and necessarily more cuddly. Its humor is based more on whatever good-natured trouble Pooh can get up to in any given moment, which can be anything from getting lost in a busy London train station to getting covered in honey and messily meandering through Robin’s well-kempt home. Its action is never violent, its characters (except for one) always decent and plot (such as it is) paced more like an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood than an actual movie.
Hook, however, is very much the opposite. Its humor is driven by the comedic stylings of its leading man (Robin Williams). Its hard-and-fast three-act narrative is relentlessly driven forward by Hollywood mainstay Steven Spielberg. Its action is both frequent and frenetic, running the gamut of sword fights, food fights and the slapstick antics of the Lost Boys.
The thing is, though, that both is pretty much the perfect version of the exact movie that it’s trying to be: one a comforting bedtime story, the other an action-packed series of daring-do. Neither is the worse for their differences: rather they take the same boilerplate “father doesn’t quite know best” story in opposite directions.
Hook is infectiously fun despite what its astounding 28% rating on Rotten Tomatoes might otherwise suggest. It’s well acted by everybody involved (yes, even the kids) and features a stunning ensemble that includes the likes of Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, Dustin Hoffman and Bob Hoskins. Spilberg bears his considerable directorial talents to bear on the project, whose entirely in-camera effects hold up surprisingly well today. And while it might not be the absolute best thing anybody involved ever did, given the caliber of filmmakers that the film was brokering in, that’s not really saying all that much. If you stayed away all these years because of its abysmal critical consensus, or just want something a bit more heartwarming than your typical Saturday evening out at the movies, Hook might just fit the bill.