By Oliver Lyttelton, Yahoo Movies
Those were strongly self-critical words from the acclaimed director, whose take on Peter Pan absorbed a drubbing from reviewers in 1991. And yet, as the movie celebrated its 25th anniversary this week, it’s been embraced as a cult favorite by a younger generation. How’d that journey happen?
The Peter Pan story certainly meant a lot to Spielberg. In Steven Spielberg: A Biography, author Joseph McBride writes the filmmaker recalled his mother reading J.M. Barrie’s classic story to him as “one of the happiest memories I have from my childhood.” The tale of the titular boy who never grew up, transported three children to the magical world of Neverland, and stood up against the villainous pirate Captain Hook held meaning for the director even into his adulthood: As he once said, “I still feel like Peter Pan. It has been very hard for me to grow up.”
So it wasn’t all that surprising Spielberg began to consider filming his own version of the tale not long after the smash success of his family film E.T. in 1982. Newspaper reports at the time suggested that Spielberg wanted pop legend Michael Jackson (who was similarly fascinated with the Peter Pan story) to star. By 1985, the director was close to diving into a musical version, with Dustin Hoffman set to play Captain Hook.
Spielberg’s longtime composer John Williams had written a number of songs, and set construction was under way in London when Spielberg had second thoughts. According to McBride’s book, Spielberg, who’d just had his first child, balked at moving to London for the shoot, and seemed to have set his sights on more “mature” material. By 1987, when he released Empire Of The Sun, Spielberg told the New York Times: “I was also attracted to the idea that this was a death of innocence, not an attenuation of childhood… this was the opposite of Peter Pan.”
Even without Spielberg, Paramount Pictures continued on with the Pan project. Nick Castle, who’d played Michael Myers in Halloween before directing ’80s kids fave The Last Starfighter, was now on board to direct. He and writer James V. Hart hit upon a new approach to the story, which saw Peter Pan grown up and working as a lawyer in America, his time in Neverland forgotten, until Captain Hook returns and kidnaps Peter’s own children.
The new spin on the story reignited Spielberg’s interest, and he returned to the project, by that point set up at Sony. Michael Jackson exited: As Spielberg would later tell Entertainment Weekly, “I called Michael and I said, ‘This is about a lawyer that is brought back to save his kids and discovers that he was once, when he was younger, Peter Pan.’ So Michael understood at that point it wasn’t the same Peter Pan he wanted to make.” (Though some reports suggested the singer might have been less understanding: Vanity Fair later alleged that Jackson hired a witch doctor to put a curse on Spielberg.)
Robin Williams then signed on as Peter, with Hoffman still aboard as Hook. Julia Roberts, hot off her breakthrough in Pretty Woman, was cast as Tinkerbell, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit star Bob Hoskins took on the role of Hook’s sidekick, Smee. The film’s lavish sets (its $70 million budget was among the highest ever up to that point) saw it become a magnet for visiting celebrities during the shoot, some of whom made cameos: Glenn Close and singer David Crosby both appear as pirates, while pop star/actor Phil Collins plays a policeman in a brief scene.
Unfortunately for Spielberg, despite the money and the star power, Hook just didn’t click. While it has its moments (mostly courtesy of Hoffman’s performance), it mostly stands as a bloated, uneven mess, at least half an hour too long, oddly sour, mostly unfunny, dripping in treacly sentiment and disappointingly unimaginative in its take on the story. In its day, its release was greeted by something Spielberg hadn’t often faced in his career: Mostly bad reviews that called it like they saw it — The New York Times dubbed it “an exhausting labor,” for example, while to Empire it was “a huge disappointment.” Box office earnings were fine while still somehow underperforming: The Addams Family and Beauty & The Beast, released around the same time, did as well or better on budgets that were half the size.
And yet, over time, audiences have been kinder to the film than critics, or even Spielberg himself. The man who gave us E.T. is second to none at capturing the joys and sensibilities of childhood on screen, and for all its faults, Hook has plenty to delight a young audience, from slapstick and kids’ TV-style slime to gizmos made to be replicated as toys, colorful sets, and even skateboarding Lost Boys, a move that may feel like pandering now but was undeniably successful in the early ’90s. Anyone who was a kid at the time will remember the catchphrases “Rufio!” or “Bangarang” ringing out at recess.
As the kids who loved the film got older, their soft spot for Hook have turned it into an enduring cult favorite in a way that defied its critical reception — and, indeed, its quality. For a so-called Peter Pan millennial generation more likely to live with their parents and less likely to settle down, maybe it’s no wonder Spielberg’s film struck a chord. At 25 years old, time has shown all those contemporary pans couldn’t keep Hook from a happy ending.
‘Hook’: Watch a trailer: