This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of the release of “Hook” (December 11, 1991). You should watch it—preferably with your children, if you have any—for it is a markedly fine movie, and perhaps Robin Williams’s best. For an oeuvre like Williams’s, that is saying something.
But “Hook” really does stand apart from the rest of his work, not merely as a technical matter—and it is, quite often, a technically delightful movie—but more importantly for its depth of character. It is partly a retelling of the timeless Peter Pan story, but re-told anew. It is not so much a new adaption of J.M. Barrie’s old fairly tale but a near-perfect kind of mirror-image conclusion of it.
For reasons that are difficult to comprehend, most people—most critics, anyway—do not feel this way. Upon its release, “Hook” was more or less critically panned. Even Steven Spielberg has come out against the movie in recent years. It baffles me. As someone with a rather unorthodox taste in movies, I understand that I am sometimes outside of the critical cinematic mainstream. But the analytical sneering directed at “Hook” is really something of a mystery: many people seem unsatisfied with the slapstick Lost Boys antics (for the record, they’re not all that bad), as well as the pacing of the movie (which is perfectly acceptable).
There is a good possibility that, for all their pretensions, most of “Hook”’s detractors simply do not understand this film. Writing in Entertainment Weekly at the time, Owen Gleiberman claimed that the film was “drenched in gooey, mythic sentiment about the child within,” and that the driving question of the movie is, more or less, “Can Peter regain touch with the wild child he once was?” In Empire, William Thomas gave the film two stars and assessed the movie as such: “[A] grown up Peter Pan…tries to reclaim his inner child.” At the Austin Chronicle, Marjorie Baumgarten’s overtly negative review claims that, within the film, Peter’s mission is, in part, to head “back to Never Never Land to reclaim his forgotten youth.”
‘Hook’ Is About True Maturity
No. These reviews—and the many others like them—are wrong, not merely as a matter of aesthetic opinion but as a matter of critical assessment. “Hook” is not a movie about the tiresome, annoying stock theme of “forgotten youth.” Nor does the movie trifle with Peter Pan’s “inner child” or “the child within.” “Hook” is smarter than this: it is a film with its feet firmly planted in the world of grown-ups. It is a story that deals almost entirely with the maturity of a man, not a man’s hearkening back to his younger days. It takes the Peter Pan mythos and more or less flips it on its head, for the entire story is one of growth: of coming into maturity rather than moving away from it.
Consider the character of aged Peter Pan at the beginning of the film: he is self-centered, angry, dismissive, callous, unsympathetic, and hurtful to those who love him. He is prone to outbursts, temper-tantrums, and irrational behavior. Nobody wants to be around him; he has no concept of genuine responsibility, instead focusing more or less entirely on his own personal self-gratification.
He is, in other words, a spoiled, unpleasant child. Late in the film, Hook correctly characterizes this Peter as “a cold, selfish man who drinks too much, who’s obsessed with success, and runs and hides from his wife and children.” Even when his wife admonishes him—“You’ve got to fix your family”—he still does not get it. A question he poses to his young son earlier in the film—“When are you going to grow up?”—becomes the question his family, in turn, asks of him. It’s one which he initially refuses to answer or even acknowledge. He is, for most practical purposes, a little boy.
‘Hook’ Is About Embracing The Joys Of Responsibility
Peter might have remained a child forever, emotionally stunted and immature, but for the kidnapping of his children, after which he is finally forced to grow up and accept responsibility of a kind he has abjured for most of his adult life. The Pan does not return to Neverland to discover his “inner child.” Children do not, as a rule, mount rescue missions to save other children (nor do children usually have children of their own). What the situation calls for is an adult—a fully actualized adult, unencumbered by the limiting self-centered narcissism of childhood. And that is what he becomes.
How does Peter shed his childlike persona in favor of that of a mature adult, prepared to defend his family even unto death? He does so by remembering his “happy thought,” which allows him to fly and become a fully realized grown-up Pan. And what is his “happy thought?” It is the birth of his own child. Peter’s happy thought, in other words, is one of awesome and all-encompassing lifelong responsibility: there is nothing in this world more adult than creating and rearing another human being. By accepting and embracing his role as father, Peter does not “reclaim” his inner child; he subdues it, finding a deeper, purer joy in his lifelong responsibility that comes with parenthood—with maturity. The thought of being a father is so affirming to Peter that it literally allows him to fly.
“Do you know what my happy thought was?” Peter joyfully tells his son. “It was you.” He then goes on to heroically rescue his children from the bad guys. Peter does not grasp desperately for some mawkish imitation of childhood. Rather, he embraces fatherhood and adulthood, and as a result he is able to save the day.
‘Hook’ Shows Characters Embracing And Rejecting Maturity
All of which is to say that, in contrast to its source material (and the insistence of its critics), “Hook” is mostly uninterested in childhood, insofar as the adult protagonist implicitly rejects it in favor of something much more grown. Indeed, even the child-characters in the movie experience growth, of a kind. Upon his death at the hands of Captain Hook, Lost Boys leader Rufio whispers to the Pan, “Do you know what I wish? I wish I had a dad… like you.” In his dying moments, Rufio rejects the screwball nihilism of the Lost Boys and yearns instead for a stable, loving familial environment in which he might thrive. It is the process of a young man’s maturing, in miniature.
And just before Peter leaves Neverland, he passes the mantle of leadership onto another Lost Boy, the portly Thud Butt: “Now I want you to take care of everything that’s smaller than you,” he tells Thud. The responsibility of an adult, conferred upon a child: in a land where nobody ages, it is the only kind of growth possible. Thud accepts it: like Peter and Rufio, he grows up.
Contrast these wonderful character developments with those of Captain Hook. He is not simply frozen in his age like the rest of Neverland residents, he is also stuck in the past: perpetually bitter, constantly relitigating the legendary fight with Pan in which he, Hook, lost his hand. Hook reminds us of the washed-up “peaked-in-high-school” fellow who can never let go of that one football game of his youth where he missed the final Hail Mary. There is a great symbolism in Hook’s fear of ticking clocks: he associates the sound with the alligator who ate his hand, but he might as well associate it with the passage of time itself, of which he is obviously, if unconsciously, terrified.
Nevertheless, Hook is given multiple opportunities to walk away from the fight with Pan, but ultimately he cannot: obsessed with his past, refusing to let go and move on—so determined that he eventually pays for his immaturity with his life. In “Hook,” the boy “who never grew up” has been reversed: it is no longer Pan, but James Hook.
What We Can Learn From ‘Hook’ In The Age Of ‘Adulting’
“Hook” was released a quarter-century ago. But it is no less relevant today. Indeed, it is even more of a poignant film in light of our current cultural moment, a zeitgeist of delayed maturity and semi-perpetual adolescence, in which one of the signs of “adulthood” is that having to buy your own toilet paper.
The current generation is one in which being “mature” means that you’ve dated someone for more than seven weeks, or you’ve held a job that offers paid holidays. It’s a confused mock-up of adulthood, a kind of timorous imitation of it. When men and women in their thirties consider crafting a grocery budget to be a sign of maturity rather than just, you know, being functional, we have done something wrong.
We can take a good lesson from “Hook,” a fun and enjoyable movie which—despite critics’ insistence—recognized that the mark of adulthood is invariably not just what you do but how you sacrifice. That is the true essence and the purpose of fatherhood and motherhood, and of adulthood more generally. Pan realized it, and he was victorious. Hook refused to see the light, and he was eaten by an enormous alligator clock. Now, which option sounds like the better adventure to you—and which option sounds like bad form?