By Brett Yates
I don’t know whether the gifted actor and comedian Robin Williams was himself especially attracted to schmaltzy, uplifting films, or whether his irrepressible stage persona simply conveyed to movie producers such a powerful joie de vivre as to make them insist that he – and only he – could show a bunch of prissy boarding school brats how to “seize the day” (“Dead Poets Society”), or help an emotionally unavailable mathematics prodigy learn to love (“Good Will Hunting”).
Williams taught us that laughter is more powerful than illness (“Patch Adams”), that the human imagination is more powerful than the Holocaust (“Jakob the Liar”), and that even robots have feelings (“Bicentennial Man”). Williams’s recent, saddening suicide stands in sharp contrast to his overwhelmingly life-affirming filmography – those massively profitable sentimental-comic exhortations to cut loose, laugh, and love, for which those of us who grew up in the ‘90s will primarily remember him.
I will remember him most of all for the Steven Spielberg production “Hook,” a pseudo-sequel to the Peter Pan story in which “The boy who wouldn’t grow up” has turned his back on Neverland and become a paunchy, joyless, middle-aged corporate lawyer who, in an early iteration of a now common trope, is forever glued to his cell phone, ignoring his family: a beautiful wife, an angelic daughter, and a young son defined solely – in a lazy sketch of American boyhood – by his love of baseball (he wears a cap and jersey the whole movie, and of course his dad misses the Big Game). Then Captain Hook kidnaps Peter’s children, and he must travel back to Neverland to retrieve them. Like “Jingle All the Way” or “Liar Liar,” “Hook” belongs to that particular subgenre of 1990s children’s entertainments that, owing no doubt to Hollywood parents’ own guilty consciences, existed less to entertain children than to lecture their fathers for neglecting them.
How to explain the magic of “Hook”?
It starts with the magic of Peter Pan – not the original Barrie stage-play, which has been so fully supplanted by a musical version that none of us knows the original anymore, nor the Barrie novel, whose prose has aged badly even for Edwardian fiction, but the idea of Peter Pan himself. Like Huck Finn, Pan is one of those characters who are more meaningful than the works that contain them, and indeed “Hook” works better if you have only a hazy memory of Barrie’s creation: the adult Pan has himself forgotten all about Neverland, and the film reintroduces its familiar elements – to him and to us – at a deliberate pace (the running time is 144 minutes) that makes the place feel like a forgotten childhood dream in which we slowly find ourselves re-immersed… this time as adults, so that we can appreciate it. You’ll be surprised by how many of the allusions to “Peter and Wendy” you’ll catch if you read the book years ago.
“Hook” follows a predictable trajectory – the grown-up Pan slowly reclaims his childhood sense of fun and adventure, but (crucially) does not regress so far as to forget about his adult responsibility to his family, ultimately finding a kind of happy medium: embracing his kids while throwing his cell phone out the window – yet in a way it’s more poignant than Barrie’s work, because it deals more clearly and openly with the feelings that, perhaps unconsciously, inspired it in the first place. Peter Pan is that rare character who is meaningful not because he is us but because we are not him, though we think we might once have been. His is an adventure story from whose adventures we are excluded. “Hook” exists to address and resolve the separation between us and Neverland: we can all be Peter Pan again, at least to some safe degree, if we can only rediscover our inner child – a classically Robin Williams-ish lesson.
The movie isn’t always “good,” but then again, the movies we love often aren’t. It remains watchable, though, in large part owing to the charmingly stagy, pre-CGI sets (for all the elaborate detail, the action sequences still look like the live “Waterworld” show at Universal Studios); the painstakingly diverse cast of actors playing the Lost Boys; and the various odd touches contained within Dustin Hoffman’s hammy performance as Hook, Dante Brasco’s cocky turn as Rufio, and the famous imaginary-dinner sequence, in which the food is all so bafflingly repulsive. And then of course there’s Robin Williams as Pan, with a twinkle of mischievous glee in his eye and only a touch of mechanical shtick, reassuring us – not wholly convincingly, but helpfully all the same – that life is magical and meant to be lived.