Sunday, December 19, 2010

Steven Spielberg: Hook

The story of Hook's inspiration is, like the film itself, at once so brilliantly and frustratingly childlike that everything that works and fails can be gleaned from its conception. Nick Castle, originally slated to direct a Peter Pan movie after Spielberg gave up the idea, got the idea from his son. The boy did something that only a child ever has the gall to do: when presented with an absolute -- Peter Pan never grows up -- he questioned why. That twist made it perfect for Spielberg to take over the project; only a Disney-fed eternal child like him would think to continue pursuing that idea, and only Spielberg could use it as the last major expulsion of his pet themes before he entered the more serious phase of his career.

Originally slated to make a version of the original Peter Pan in the '80s, Spielberg shelved the project when he had his first child. Wisely, he also believed his thoughts on childhood and the perversion of either staying young in a harshly adult world or maturing too quickly were thoroughly expounded with Empire of the Sun. For Hook, he approaches the same topic from the opposite angle: now that he's a father, a father who might be gone months of the year on location shooting, Spielberg clearly fears he might become the same absentee father that he endured as a child. Thus, for all the light, occasionally distracting comedy of the tale, Hook has as much to say about the director's hangups as any of his other films.

Ingeniously, he recasts Peter Pan as Peter Banning, a Baby Boomer lawyer who, as Wendy (yes, that Wendy) rightly notes, has become a modern pirate. Opening with a Truffaut homage in the form of children's upturned faces as they watch their peers perform a school play of Peter Pan, Hook's gentle mood is broken ever so slightly the second it settles upon Peter (Robin Williams) as he watches his daughter on the stage playing Wendy. Then, it shatters when he cell phone rings. Ignoring his daughter, he then makes plans that conflict with his son Jack's baseball game in the morning.

Though the film tracks Peter, Spielberg roots it in a child's perspective, preparing for the eventual shift back to Neverland but also allowing everyone but Peter to see the effects of his behavior. It is a shame that Spielberg never gives us the point of view of Peter's adult self, the desire to work hard and provide comfortable lives for his family, but then that point of view has always reeked of self-justification anyway and the misery of his family hardly speaks to their well-being.

Only when the family heads to London with a still-fuming Jack does Peter's humanity show. There to help Granny Wendy (Maggie Smith, who in her younger days played Peter on the stage) with a hospital wing dedication in her honor, Peter is still distracted. At the actual dinner, however, he shines, beautifully paying tribute to the woman who took in him and other orphans without saying much at all. Contrasted with his previous coldness, and an ill-timed shift in the deal he thought was a lock causes him to explode at his children, we can see the good man in Peter, even if he cannot.

The lighting in this first segment is soft, tranquil but also ghostly. This is most visible at the charity ball where dozens of table lamps first illuminate the power and meaning of Wendy's efforts with orphans then turn cold and ominous as Hook's return sends waves of chilled atmosphere rolling across an already frigid London. Once Peter is lured back to Neverland -- by, who else, that zipping ball of light known as Tinker Bell (Julia Roberts) -- Spielberg alters the lighting scheme to something brighter, more optimistic, replacing artificial light with the natural sunlight the office-bound Peter likely had not noticed in years.

Spielberg has his fun with the character, making Peter Pan not only a grown man but one with an intense fear of heights and flying. After stumbling into Hook's pirate hangout and confronting the mad captain, Peter must suffer the humiliation of having to chase his trapped children up a mast under the ultimatum that, if he can simply fly like Pan and touch Jack and Maggie's hands, they can go free. All the poor man can do is tremble and fail when he attempts to climb out and grab them. Only Tinker Bell's quick-thinking saves the Bannings from death, and her successful plying of Hook's vanity gives Peter a shot at rediscovering his past self to add some punch to the fight.

Without question, Hook is a flawed film. Nowhere are the issues more apparent than in the Lost Boys' hideaway, a bizarre yet unimaginative mash-up of classical tree house structure with modern touches like a skate park(!). The use of oddly placed bright paint -- contained in suction-cup arrows, placed in a large pool used for rough landings in flying lessons -- captures less a sense of the childhood id gone mad than Spielberg grasping at straws for something that might amuse a kid. For a director all too often accused of being emotionally stunted, Spielberg suffers from the opposite problem here: like Peter, he's grown up, and returning to his innocence proves an unexpected challenge.

The most egregious indicator of the director's age showing is the dinner scene, where Peter looks on helplessly as the Lost Boys eat what appears to be nothing until he too plays along and finds a feast laid before him. As the dinner begins and the children exclaim over the foods they're eating, one boy exultantly shouts "banana squash!" What goddamn child in the history of human existence has ever lost his mind for banana squash? Adults don't even get excited for it. You're telling me that a child (a runaway child with no parental conditioning, no less), left to imagine his ultimate meal, would A) have anything that could even pass as a vegetable and B) wouldn't invent some magical meat made of ice cream? It's a small detail, I grant you, but it's indicative of the issues that mar the film.

Likewise, the Lost Boys themselves lack characterization beyond their appearance, from the jovial, roly-poly Thud Butt to a wee lad whose shortness reveals an impish cad. I've been watching this film since before I could even remember, and I've yet to decide whether Rufio works as a character or derails the entire picture. That a Lost Boy would assume authority of the troupe in Pan's absence is sensible, but there are several problems with Rufio. For one thing, even though Pan was always the biggest of the Lost Boys, he hovered around 12 and 13. Rudio looks like he drove into Neverland after stealing his stepdad's GTO and avoiding the prom because his high school suspended him. For another, he does not ever fit in with the other boys, and his attempts to engage in the goofy imagination that occupies the Lost Boys' time resemble a teen awkwardly breaking out old toys and messing with them like an Alzheimer's patient who has forgotten their function.

By the same token, he obviously looks like the clear leader in Peter's absence, and his half-punk styling fits within the genteel vision of Lord of the Flies that is the adolescent anarchy of the Lost Boys. He regards Peter with scorn because he's a grown-up, but the more Peter proves himself and reveals his inner Pan, the more Rufio prepares to hand power back without a fight. Dante Basco clearly had fun working on this large-scale production, an undeniable step up from his start as a child breakdancer and bit actor, and the twinkle in his eye as he gets to sneer at Robin Williams carries the character much further than anything he actually says.

What the film does well is explore Peter's half-regression, half-evolution to a man who remembers his responsibilities but also taps into his childish side. Williams finds one of his best mixes of his manic, often grating comic style and powerful but occasionally maudlin dramatic side, and he arguably wouldn't better the balance he found here until World's Greatest Dad last year. He plays Peter as the sort of man who would yell, "When are you going to stop acting like a child?" at his 10-year-old son, who has the only possible answer: "I am a child!" In Neverland, Williams has the unlikely role of straight man, the one who has to remain calm and incredulous instead of unleashing his series of impersonations and stream-of-consciousness rants. Fresh off two lauded dramatic performances in Dead Poets Society and Awakenings that showed off his Julliard-honed skills, Williams perhaps uses Peter's arc to get back in touch with his own roots.

Still, even when the old, playful Pan reemerges, the best comedy of the film by a mile belongs to the double act of Hook and Smee. Hoffman and Bob Hoskins could not be more game for their roles, and they play their relationship less as master and servant than mental patient and caretaker, Smee constantly trying to buck up Hook in his incessant and hysterical bouts with suicidal depression. Hoffman takes the same tics and obsessive mannerisms that made Rain Man so borderline offensive and turns them into comedy gold: his Hook is all slight nods and twitching lips, trying vainly to act respectable until he explodes in villainous glee. There's a reason the film is called Hook, because whenever he's on-screen, the film swells.

Symbols of emotional and physical baggage run through Spielberg's films, from suitcase a starved, half-mad Jamie drags out of the internment camp in Empire of the Sun to the image of the Devil's Tower Roy cannot get out of his mind until he leaves it, and Earth (and his family), behind him in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Several predominant symbols in Hook lock and unlock memories, their potency enhanced by Neverland's ability to make one forget himself. Before leaving for the charity function, Peter attempts to make amends with Jack by giving him his watch, a sign of adulthood and responsibility. Hook, naturally, hates clocks of all kinds owing to that damn crocodile that haunts him even after he killed it, uses that watch to break Jack. Playing on the boy's resentment of his father, Hook brainwashes Jack into loving him instead, and the clear break comes when the boy smashes Peter's watch.

Another symbol is a baseball, which Jack carries around with him. Hook organizes a baseball game to fully win Jack over, and when the boy hits the home run he never could in the real world, he finally gets his perfect childhood wish even as he sends the symbol of his innocence rocketing away from him. When it hits Peter on the head, it helps jog back his own priorities, but he must find his own repository of childhood to fully reawaken his own powers. This he finds in a teddy bear, a symbol Spielberg already used way back in his first theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express, thus tying Peter's childhood with his own.

These intelligent touches keep me coming back to Hook long after I should have grown out of it, but they remain frustrating when taken with the film's many missteps. There's a terrific moment of slapstick during the pirates' ballgame when a man tries to steal second and is shot, much to Hook's annoyance, but the funniness of the moment also begs the question why Jack just doesn't react at all to a man being murdered in front of him, in some ways because of him and his desire to play a game no one else in Neverland understands. The climactic fight should carry the weight of two old rivals engaging in their final duel, but the slapstick of the Lost Boys' involvement turns a bloodbath into Home Alone; I half-expected Commander Macaulay Culkin to lead a division of Lost Boys. And in one of the film's true serious moments, Peter's recollection of his mother and how he came to Neverland, Spielberg and his writers come up with a backstory that clashes with the director's visual accompaniment. Peter speaks of fleeing his family because he was afraid of mortality, yet the film shows his baby carriage simply sliding away (and his mother just not reacting in any way whatsoever). Even setting that aside on grounds of whimsy and fantasy, we're still left with a baby who was apparently engaged in philosophical rumination on the nature of death, and suddenly we're back in banana squash territory.

Yet I still do enjoy Hook, with its Hook/Smee dynamic (further proof that Spielberg can make comedy work when he adheres to a more classical structure instead of his more epically scaled missteps) and the form that only Spielberg can bring. He breaks from reality as soon as possible here, casting an intense but cold light reminiscent of the the passing UFOs in Close Encounters of the Third Kind outside the children's bedroom in Wendy's house. Shots bookend each other, whether in close proximity -- a long shot of Peter standing on the balcony after the children's abduction to Tinker Bell flying in and assuming a similar scale with the dollhouse inside. Spielberg had no reason to go to Neverland, not after saying everything he could have said there in an internment camp in Shanghai, but he does find new topics for discussion even if they might have been better served elsewhere. At its core, Hook is one of two expulsions of Spielberg's "old" style before he entered into the modern phase of his career. Unlike Empire of the Sun, both Hook and Jurassic Park would couch his themes in his more broadly entertaining élan. But if Hook is all about taking out all the childish things we put away, the director used it to stow his old self as he prepared for one of the most remarkable late-careers of any prominent filmmaker.

5 comments:

  1. Hey Jake, I haven't seen Hook in AGES, but I'm considering buying it before the month is out... do you mind if I come back to this piece later on? When I see the movie again I'll be sure to leave a (lengthy) comment.

    By the way, let me also add how impressed I am that you've been so committed to sticking to each and every one of Spielberg's titles, from 1971 to 1991. That's 20 years of his career you've already covered. Think you've got another twenty in you? Ha!

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  2. Adam, that's cool. I've avoided reading a few things posted so far because I haven't rewatched some of the films I want to discuss. (I checked out Ryan's WOTW/Munich piece because I already rewatched them and made enough notes that those reviews are half-written anyway and await only more contextual stuff from a career overview standpoint).

    And thanks man. I definitely think I've got another 20 in me once we start getting into SL, Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can. I'm a little concerned I don't have much to add to A.I. since it was revisiting it that planted the idea to go back and re-evalutate him. But I'll come up with something, even it's shorter than usual.

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  3. Nicely done, Jake. You've expressed quite brilliantly what makes HOOK such a frustrating entry in the canon if Spielberg's films. It has the potential to be something great but it ends up being mediocre at best. I once theorized that Spielberg's career can be divided into phases and that HOOK came during his "adolescent" phase (that time when, as all teenagers do, he wanted to be "grow up" as a filmmaker but didn't quite possess the resources). If he had actually made a Peter Pan movie during his "childhood" phase (when he did JAWS, RAIDERS, E.T., etc), I think it would have been a superior movie. At the very least it would have been a more consistent movie. Still, HOOK does have some fine moments. Peter's first time soaring into the air (as John Williams' music soars with him) always gives me goosebumps. Also, any scene with Dustin Hoofman and Bob Hoskins raises the film a notch or two.

    Incidentally, it never occurred to me to consider the opening of the film as "Truffaut-like" (though I can see that now). I always likened it more to the opening of Bergman's MAGIC FLUTE (where the overture to the opera plays over close-ups of the anticipating faces its audience... focusing particularly on a young girl at the beginning and end of the piece).

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  4. Although it may be simple in some areas - I remember watching this film as a child and it cracked me up (particularly Dustin Hoffman and Bob Hoskins). Now, it is one of my children's favourite movies, and they are in hysterics when they watch it. I think the finer details, critics may pick up on, but it is a firm family favourite, even 20 years after it's making, it seems like it was made only recently. I love Dustin Hoffman in this movie, he is fantastic, and to me, he makes the movie.

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  5. Okay, I was able to revisit the movie recently. Now for that lengthy comment I promised.

    Jake, I'm pretty much in the same boat with you on this one. There are so many wonderful sequences in Hook that it's a film I can't help but like, flaws and all. I recall seeing the film at least twice during my early years but not really being able to remember much about it. Now that I've revisited the film, it's sort of easy to see why: oddly enough, the movie seems targeted more towards adults than to kids.

    Spielberg's previous blockbusters have a simplicity that allows them to be easily understood by juveniles -- this includes Jaws, Raiders, E.T., Temple of Doom, Last Crusade and even something as adult-dominated as Close Encounters. Maybe other kids would differ with me, but when I was younger I had a difficult time following the the plot of Hook, and I think it's because Jim V. Hart's dialogue is chock-full of adult complexities (we must remember, this same guy wrote the dialogue for Coppola's Dracula a year later). There's a lot of scenes in this movie during which Banning mulls over his fate as Peter Pan, his stockbroking business, and Hook's fears of going down in history as a tyrant if he doesn't give Banning a fair chance. I guess all of this flew over my head when I was younger.

    Watching the movie again, I enjoyed it so much more -- now that I see so much of Spielberg in the Banning character. I'd say that if Always was Spielberg's apology to Amy Irving, then Hook is his apology to Max: "Did I fail you as a father?", he's asking. And since he married Kate Capshaw around that same time, it's almost like the Banning character served as a kind of warning Spielberg made to himself, to not become the same deluded workaholic with his new breed of wife and kids.

    I'd say the film is 2/3 of a great movie, though even those 2/3 have their problems (the Lost Boys' mediocre set design; the overly-ornate Hook ship; the god-awful gag of the flowers sniffing out Banning's crotch). After that, the movie concludes anti-climatically, though not in such a way that renders it a travesty. I'm mostly bothered by that final duel between Banning and Hook: Spielberg keeps delaying Hook's death by having Jack and Maggie constantly interfering in the fight, as if to suggest that there will be a pacifistic conclusion. Yet Spielberg elects to kill Hook off anyway, and that's a blatant contradiction if there ever was one. I think the Nostalgia Critic even riffed on this in his mostly-positive review.

    I'm intrigued by your suggestion that the opening scene at the play reeks of Truffaut's influence. Do you know of any particular films of his with similar scenes? The only one I can think of at the moment is The Last Metro.

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