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EMPIRE ESSAY: Hook Review

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When Capt. Hook kidnaps his children, an adult Peter Pan must return to Neverland and reclaim his youthful spirit in order to challenge his old enemy.

★★★★★

Mention Hook these days and you'll probably get a sniffy response. Perhaps the suggestion that this ambitious update of J.M. Barrie's smug, floaty little git hero is a rare Spielberg dud. Few may even go so far as to offer the sort of merciless kicking that the film suffered after its original theatrical release. Rubbish, boring, too long, too dull, came the reaction. It's all hook, and no real substance, guffawed several imaginative hacks. But did the film really deserve such critical and, relatively speaking, commercial scorn?

Well, Hook is certainly not without flaw, nor even a satisfactory watch. But the majority of the mud-slinging nay-sayers are missing the point. Or, at the very least, missing the bigger picture. Spielberg always had a Peter Pan movie in him, and this — rather than bad planning or poor performance — is the source of Hook's problems: when that kernel of creativity finally emerged, clouded by a long-gestation and endless embellishment, it struggled to retain a sense of childlike wonder while relaying life lessons gathered along the way. A lot to ask.

And was the broad, colourful, heavily-spun yarn that resulted really just about Spielberg himself, as is commonly claimed, or is there a more sly and complicated agenda? A cautionary tale for his friends, warning against losing touch with the child within and the children without? A sideways dig at colleagues in the industry so fixated by the business, they've forgotten the importance of the show? All defensible but debatable interpretations — the answers remain unclear.

Unfortunately, such lack of clarity is evident at surface level too: just who is this movie for? Spielberg's revamped premise seems targeted at the junior market: Pan has soured into neglectful, vertigo-stricken Yank Peter Banning (Williams), unaware of his past and (ho ho) now a pirate in the cutthroat world of corporate mergers and acquisitions. Enter sleaziest sleaze of the Seven Seas, Captain James Hook (Hoffman) for a spot of domestic vandalism and kidnapping, and later pint-sized pixie Tinkerbell (Roberts), who leads the sceptical Peter back to Neverland, where he must remember how to fly, to fight, to crow, to do funny voices again.

But if it's a kids' movie the momentum's all wrong: whatever the demands of story set-up, half an hour to crank into gear is just too long, and when it looks like sneery, wit-strewn confrontation 'twixt the old rivals is finally in the offing, Peter is thrown into enforced Lost Boys rehab. And for adults, while Spielberg's themes of family, belonging and parent-child relations are strongly portrayed (Williams and Caroline Goodall depicting familial strain particularly well), the movie holds two giant dips into juvenile slapstick. Although the Hoffman/Hoskins odd couple routine as Hook and Smee (spiced up at Hoffman's request) is pitched older, should beardy Bob really be allowed to barrel about yelling "Flock off" in a U cert.? And should Peter's slagging match with Rufio (Dante Basco) really include the insults "mother-lover" and "near-sighted gynaecologist?"

The film's other significant stumbling block is self-indulgence. At the time, Spielberg was firmly ensconced at Fantasy Central. Hook sits within an escapist quartet — Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, Always and Jurassic Park — and with the director playing away from the bankable Indy brand, the ante was seriously upped. Along with the budget. Spielberg seemed intent on creating a spectacle behind the camera as well as in front of it, constructing colossal, elaborate sets on costly soundstages rather than employing CGI, as he would two years later. It was almost as if he had something to prove — a mark of the sort of resources he was capable of galvanising. And the production's theme park feel was hardly dispelled by numerous visits of assorted celeb chums for guided tours of Neverland.

But amid all this flexing of moviemaking muscle, there's possible evidence of uncertainty as well. Spielberg's use of established box office guarantors Williams, Hoffman and Roberts was uncharacteristic and pricey, especially as the latter amounts to little more than an extended cameo. And what the hell's Phil Collins doing in there?: "It is entirely probable that this whole thing is some kind of ridiculous prank..." Well, quite. Subtract one star automatically.

There are, of course, some performing gems too — the moppets capable and endearing; Hoskins' supplying bawdy comic relief, Gwyneth Paltrow in a micro cameo as the young Wendy, and Dame Maggie Smith priceless as Wrinkly Wendy. And though it's not Spielberg's most cogent, successful or entertaining offering, it's still a fascinatingly layered movie, with richly crafted set-pieces alongside a deftly-captured sense of the intimate, and the aforementioned flaws actually adding to the interest. Like it or loathe it, Hook is simply too big in too many senses to dismiss as mere excess and aberration, and — the theme park aspect duly noted — would lead inexorably to one place: dinosaur mayhem.

His worst film, but there's still much here to enjoy.

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