What Went Wrong? Hook (1991)

The Movie: Hook (1991)

Here at TheCultureCrossing.com, I’ve taken a look at a handful of movies already, like 1993’s Super Mario Bros and 2016’s Suicide Squad, that were big budget, high concept movies that reached for the stars but instead crashed and burned in a major way. They weren’t just critical bombs and financial disappointments. They also torpedoed any chance at launching profitable franchises.

This time, I’m going to take a look at a movie that is in the similar vein: 1991’s Hook. If you’ve seen Hook, you may be raising an eyebrow at me grouping it with the previous movies in my series. Hook wasn’t an overbooked, wasted opportunity (Suicide Squad) or an absolute tap-dancing dumpster fire (Super Mario Bros).

But it was so…disappointing.

So let’s a flight to Neverland and take a look at the world of Hook. We’ll see what was good about it, what went wrong, and how it could have been better. PLEASE NOTE: although this movie is almost thirty years old, there are some spoilers in places. So be aware!

What Worked With Hook and Why Did It Have So Much Potential?

There was so much that could have happened with Hook, so much room for originality and creativity. It certainly wasn’t a financial flop, making $300 million off of a $70 million budget, and it was nominated for five Academy Awards. Not only that, it featured an intriguing concept: what would have happened had Peter Pan actually grown up? We’ve seen so many iterations of the Peter Pan tale over the years. Rarely had it dealt with speculative fiction of what might happen if The Boy Who Never Grew Up suddenly…grew up?

Other than the concept, one of the other strong aspects of Hook was the star power it brought to the table. There was star power both in front of the camera and behind it. The movie starred some of the biggest and brightest stars in Hollywood at the time (though we’ll get more into this in a bit) and had some very strong supporting cast members. It was helmed by legendary director Steven Spielberg, who was fresh off of directing the mega-successful Indiana Jones movies and who would go on to direct Jurassic Park and the Oscar-winning Schindler’s List a few years later.

In particular among the strong supporting cast was Bob Hoskins (who would go on to star in Super Mario Bros of all things) as Smee. Hoskins did a masterful job of walking the line between over-the-top and silly while also being dramatic. Not only that, but the introduction of a noticeable-yet-subtle queer undertone to the Smee-Hook relationship was somewhat revolutionary for its time. Also strong was Dante Basco as Rufio, the tough but ultimately sympathetic leader of the Lost Boys who dies defending Peter’s honor. This act forces Peter’s son, Jack, to reconcile with his father and, in the end, the crocodile gets Captain Hook again.

Indeed, one of the stronger elements of Hook is the way it deals with the dynamic of Peter Pan (now Peter Banning) as a father. He becomes the same kind of grown-up he always wanted to avoid. In one of the movie’s most iconic moments, he regains his ability to fly by remembering his happiest thought. He left Neverland and grew up because he wanted to be a father.

That scene…it still gets me all these years later.

So despite all of this potential and star power, why isn’t Hook more well-loved? Why is it remembered as a movie with middling reviews at best – an abysmal 29% on Rotten Tomatoes – and not a game-changing work that could have started a franchise?

Well, let’s take a look…

Hook: What Went Wrong?

Earlier, I mentioned that Hook had a lot of star-power in its cast. It was also directed by Spielberg in his prime. But as any chef can tell you, great ingredients don’t always make a great meal. And Hook was not a great meal.

The biggest issue of the movie was the casting of the two leads. Robin Williams played Peter Pan. Dustin Hoffman played Captain Hook. That’s 11 Academy Award Nominations and 3 wins right there (and Hoffman had just won an Oscar for Rain Man two years prior). Both were very capable actors in their primes. But they were cast incorrectly.

Williams was…fine?…as Peter Pan. He tamed his trademark wild energy at the time and focused it into a more serious role until the time called for it towards the end. But he was a bit too inconsistent in his role. Like in his other more dramatic roles (i.e. What Dreams May Come), his “serious” acting sometimes comes across as too syrupy and over-the-top. His portrayal of Peter Pan was almost too melodramatic and, when he finally crosses back over to the side of the Lost Boys, almost too cheesy for the role.

The real role for Williams in this movie was that of Captain Hook. If Williams would have been cast as Captain Hook, he could have unleashed his manic energy for a good purpose. Captain Hook is all about being over-the-top and theatrical, and Williams would have nailed that part. However, there is also a darker element to Hook’s character. Williams might have been able to match this dark element but it would have been unlikely. One thing is for sure, though: Dustin Hoffman was not right for the role of Captain Hook. Hoffman is a great actor of course. He has played iconic roles and earned both critical and popular acclaim. But his performance as Captain Hook was too bland for this movie. Everything in Hook was over-the-top, syrupy, fantastical, or melodramatic. Hoffman’s performance was just…there. It was fine. But it could have been a lot more.

Speaking of poor casting choices, let’s talk about Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell for a minute. Julia Roberts did not need to be in this movie. She was not a good enough actress to blend into the role, which made Tinkerbell less a character and more a ploy to sell tickets (indeed, she was a year removed from her star making role in Pretty Woman). This was a movie about a beloved fictional character, framed around an intriguing narrative, directed by a beloved auteur in Steven Spielberg. In this way, Hook suffered from a similar problem as Suicide Squad. People were always going to see this movie. It didn’t need a “Hollywood choice” like Julia Roberts to sell tickets. This was a chance to put a potential rising star in a breakout role. Instead, they took the movie star who – like her counterparts – didn’t really fit.

That brings us to the final misfire from Hook, that being the direction of Spielberg. Spielberg’s movies, while loved, always had that overly emotional and melodramatic bent. But he didn’t bring anything original and interesting to this story. He just leaned on his typical tricks and did a cookie-cutter job in which could have been an intriguing narrative. It had the stirring score by John Williams. It had the father-son dynamic that so many Spielberg movies have. It had the big special effects and bright colors. But it didn’t have any real originality or charm. And I’m not the only one who thinks so: Spielberg himself notoriously disliked Hook, even though fans have taken more of a liking to it in recent years.

How Could Hook Have Been Better?

So with all of that in mind, how could Hook have been done better? How could it have become a classic of the fairytale and fantasy genre that it could have been?

The first step would have been to figure out the correct casting choice. So who would have been a better Peter Pan? You could convince me that Williams could have made Peter work if given a better Captain Hook to play off. In fact, one fascinating choice could have been to have Robin Williams play both Peter Pan and Captain Hook. It would have taken some editing trickery, of course. But to have him unleash all of the different facets of his personality and acting chops would have made for an interesting ride.

However, there could have been other choices to play Peter Pan that likely would have been more intriguing than Williams. The two that stand out the most are Rick Moranis and Tom Hanks. Both Moranis and Hanks had an everyman charm that would have gone over well with audiences and would have made them endearing as Peter Pan. Moranis had recently finished filming the underrated Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, in which he played a goofball but well-meaning dad who ends up saving the day. This same charm would have played well in Hook as Peter Pan, though having him play the stuck-up version of Peter Banning might have been tricky.

Hanks, though, would have been a perfect choice for Peter Pan. He had just recently finished starring in his breakout role in Big, where he played an actual boy trapped in a grown-up’s body. He had (and really, still has) that boyish and loveable charm that would have resonated with audiences as Peter Pan. He also had not yet become the megastar he would develop into over the ensuing years (Hook came out in 1991, and he didn’t win his back-to-back Oscars until 1994 & 1995). He wouldn’t have overpowered the role with his celebrity star power much like Williams did to a degree. With Hanks – or Moranis – in the role of Peter Pan, the character would have been more emotionally resonant and not as campy as Williams made it.

But what about the role of Captain Hook? Hook’s role is one that needed to be over-the-top and chew all the scenery. As we have discussed, Hoffman did not accomplish that task. But who could have done that effectively? We would need someone who was a quality actor that could handle any role. We would need someone who could be funny, but more to the point someone who could be sinister and threatening. We would also need someone who wouldn’t overpower the role with obvious celebrity star power.

That’s quite a lot of criteria to meet. However, the best choice for an actor that ticks all the boxes is the man who won the Academy Award for Best Actor the year before Hook was released: Jeremy Irons. Irons has made a career of playing the threatening, brilliant villain. He is always the highlight of the movie he is in, but he never overpowers it. In fact, he could have blended in with any of the actors for Peter Pan, whether it be Williams himself or even Moranis or Hanks.

The other thing that could have improved Hook? Let the story speak for itself. The way Hook was set up, it was a story about Peter Pan growing up, forgetting his roots, and ultimately redeeming himself. There was no need for nonsensical special effects or melodrama. The story will create the drama and the pathos; let the actors and the script do the rest. Indeed, a major issue with the original version of Hook is the fact that it really tried to pack too much into the film. It’s already a good story. Just let it tell itself.

Thanks for reading this edition of TheCultureCrossing.com’s historic disappointments that could have been better!

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