Two children stand on a stage, sweetly fumbling their lines. “Don’t you know what a kiss is?” says one of the children. “I shall, if you give one to me,” says the other, before being handed a thimble. So begins Steven Spielberg’s 1991 film, Hook, adapting the opening act of J.M. Barrie’s play, Peter Pan, for an audience of proud parents. Sure, opening the film with children performing the play is a bit of meta-fictional cleverness. But it also serves as a mission statement for a film that prizes above all the wild logic of a child’s imagination. In Peter Pan’s world, a thimble is a kiss, clapping brings fairies back to life, and a magical world can be reached by flying to the “second star on the right, and straight on till morning.” Barrie’s gift to children was to fully indulge their playtime escapism. In Hook, Spielberg does the same, while also daring parents to indulge in the same way.
This indulgence is apparently missing in Joe Wright’s new prequel film, Pan, which features, among other sins, an explanation of Tinker Bell’s fairy dust. According to Nick Schager’s review at IndieWire, it’s as insulting as the awful “midichlorians-are-the-Force”scene in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. This kind of over-explained nonsense is common in the children’s film of today. Even the good ones, like Pixar’s recent Inside Out, find themselves compelled to outline and illustrate every single rule in the name of “world-building.” Hook stands in stark contrast to this impulse, and makes childish illogic its driving engine.
It should be said here that Hook is a great film—a controversial opinion, but one I didn’t know was disputed until very recently. As a child of the ’90s, I loved it, and all my friends loved it. We watched it over and over and over and over. Robin Williams was the coolest dad ever; and Rufio, with his memorable “Bangarang!” cry, was our hero. Watching it again as an adult is a curious experience. I see the apparent flaws—the bloat, for example. When I was a kid, I never realized how long the movie was. How transporting those 146 minutes must have been. I also can’t help but be moved by what is admittedly a messy, loud, silly film.
It’s not nostalgia I’m blinded by, but memory. I remember what it was to be a child, sitting on the floor, watching that Hook VHS, being excited by the world Spielberg had created. I remember my wonder at the moment when Williams, as an adult Pan, flings an empty spoon at Rufio and magically hits him with a scoop of cream. I also remember seeing myself in a story in which a workaholic father learns to connect with his kids. It was aspirational. What I see in Hook is a film that works in the same way my mind worked when I was young.
This connective power should not be dismissed, and though Spielberg himself has expressed negative feelings about Hook, much of its reputation speaks to the very jadedness of adulthood the film rails against. There’s a free, anarchic quality to Hook. It’s manifested in brash, garish, delightful nonsense, like the food fight scene, and really any scene with the Lost Boys. It’s also there in the trust Spielberg has for the strength of his images. The kidnapping of Peter’s children happens through a series of fantastic, creepy images: their bedroom windows slowly unlocking, the windows bursting open, green light flooding the room, their blankets flying off their beds. Yet, when Peter gets home, he finds a long scratch from a hook starting at the front door, and leading up the stairs and to the bedroom. Does any of this make sense? Not in the slightest. But much like the famous discontinuity of the T-Rex attack in Jurassic Park, Spielberg knows that logic doesn’t matter an ounce in the face of such terrifying imagery.
One of Hook’s greatest virtues is its willingness to go dark. It’s scary—really scary. A child is killed on-screen in Hook. That’s almost entirely unheard of in family films. Even the likes of Coraline and ParaNorman, which deal with death in childhood, refrain from actually showing it. This feature is not to be taken lightly. Spielberg understands that children like to be scared, just like anyone else, and he respects them enough to imagine they might also understand the impact of death. Where the parental impulse is to wear kid gloves, Hook throws them right out the window, talking to kids on their own level instead.
Late in the film, Captain Hook gets the idea to turn Peter’s children against him. He succeeds, in about the space of a day, in making Peter’s son literally forget who he is by letting him smash clocks, play baseball, and dress up in a Captain Hook costume. In any other film, this kind of plot turn would be unbelievable and ridiculous. For Hook, unbelievable and ridiculous is par for the course. In the film’s most beautiful passage, Peter narrates the story of how he came to Neverland after deciding he didn’t want to grow up to be whatever it was his parents had planned. Spielberg shows us this in the images of a baby in a carriage rolling away and then being carried off by Tinkerbell. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, and that’s just the way the imagination of a child works. An adult might balk at this imaginative anarchy, but it’s something Hook believes in wholeheartedly. Damn the logical consistency of “world-building,” it says. Bring on the wonder of playtime come to life.