Saturday, April 9, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part XIX: Why doesn't he fly? Is he not Peter Pan?


Our director returns to the kid's adventure, but this time starring an adult, and one urgently wonders if that was really the best idea, even if one mostly likes what came out of it.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by James Hart, Malia Scotch Marmo, and Nick Castle (based on characters created by J.M. Barrie)
With Robin Williams (Peter Banning), Maggie Smith (Wendy Darling), Caroline Goodall (Moira Banning), Charlie Korsmo (Jack Banning), Amber Scott (Maggie Banning), Julia Roberts (Tinkerbell), Dante Basco (Rufio), Bob Hoskins (Smee), and Dustin Hoffman (Captain James Hook)

Spoiler alert: high

First of all, you're already playing with fire when you make a children's movie that clocks in at 142 minutes, even if they're a pretty breezy 142 minutes, and the larger part of Hook's problems can be chalked up to an overindulgent final sequence that represents its director giving in completely to the temptation to showcase his enormous (yet cutely stagebound) pirate ship sets, but, unfortunately, only within the context of some truly eye-glazing action.  The other problems, of course, can be blamed on privileging its lead's well-worn comic stylings over a more psychologically plausible narrative; on the director's disdain for women and girls, so pronounced and obvious that it's almost bitterly amusing; and, yes, on the film's premise itself, which is handled in a manner both somewhat facile—especially for a movie that, again, runs 142 minutes—and on occasion so unsupportably specific that you realize nobody ever thought this through properly, thereby leaving not just several instantly-identifiable plot holes behind, but also a bizarrely sexual tinge.  (And in case that's not terribly clear, what I mean to say is that this is the Peter Pan movie where Tinkerbell is sort of a pedophile—although if I just said "this is the Peter Pan movie where Tinkerbell is sort of a pedophile," I suppose I would need to narrow that down a little bit, insofar as ever since Disney's 1953 cartoon production of Peter Pan, if not long before, this has been a defining trait of her character.  Still, it's never been more blatant than here.)

So.  Turns out Hook has a lot of problems.

But it arises out of a tantalizing twist upon an enduring story, and one can't blame Steven Spielberg for approaching it with enthusiasm, particularly given that it gave him yet another opportunity to exercise (or is that exorcise?) his father issues, which had been compounded recently, now that he was a father, too (and, by his own lights, an all-too-often absent one, thanks to his ascension to the pinnacle of Hollywood mega-moguldom).  Meanwhile, it provided Spielberg the ideal vehicle to explore—although how well it explores it is a matter of taste—his own burgeoning myth, that of the Peter Pan of Cinema, who could not, or would not, "grow up."  At turns, then, it really is a reasonably moving examination of Spielberg's increasingly-complicated relationship with fatherhood; and, likewise at turns, it's a hugely enjoyable vehicle for his childlike whimsy to express itself in a natural way.  Thus, I—like many my age—still retain fond childhood memories of Hook.  Even as an adult, I can still see whybut its magic is the magic of individual scenes, individual moments, and individual performances, many of them vivid, some of them indelible, and none of them completely cohering into a true whole.

Hook tells the story of Peter Banning, who once was Peter Pan—which the film foreshadows during its first act with the kind of hammering bluntness well-suited to a children's picture, and which I therefore elect to find suitably enchanting.  Peter left Neverland many years ago, you see.  He no longer even remembers his life there.  He has grown, married the granddaughter of Wendy Darling, Moira, and with her he's sired two children, Jack and Maggie.  And he loves all of them in his own idiosyncratic way—that is, ignoring them at every opportunity, in order to live out the life of one of the most profound yuppie stereotypes you'll ever encounter, brokering "deals" and doing "business."  It is in the midst of one of these deals that Peter takes his family on a trip to see Grandma Wendy—and, once back in the home of the girl he had so often visited, he still can barely find a moment to spend with any of the people he loves.  So cue the life-changing adventure: if Peter has forgotten about Neverland, Neverland has not forgotten about him.  And out of the night Neverland comes, stealing his children from their beds, and leaving a notepinned to their door with an ornate and archaic dagger—signed "Captain J.A.S. Hook."

Soon, with Tinkerbell's help, Peter makes his way to Neverland to retrieve them, a task he fails miserably at, due to being old and tired and weak—unable to fly, unable to fight, and unable to crow, as the picture comes dangerously close to making tediously clear.  Hook, so depressed by his archenemy's feebleness that he starts to contemplate suicide, sends him back to the Lost Boys, where Peter trains to retake the shape of the hero he once was.  But in the meantime, Hook shall keep Jack and Maggie, and as he gets to know the tykes he hits upon a method of revenge much crueler than killing Peter in battle: he'll show Jack the love and attention his father never gave him, and make Jack his own pirate prince.

Obviously, it's the sort of story that works in the context of its three-day timeline solely because we're supposed to interpret it as a fairy tale; but when you pull a Watchmen (or, more aptly still, a Miracleman), which Hook quite unmistakably does by introducing a middle-aged Peter Pan who's forgotten his roots and fornicated and procreated, it stops being a straight fairy tale, and starts being a deconstruction of them.

That's the never-resolved tension at the heart of Hook.  It is almost entirely uninterested in being a movie for adults, even though it is obviously supposed to be a movie for adults: a movie for kids would simply be called Peter Pan, starring Peter Pan and not Peter Banning, and would not ask a kid to try to identify with some sad-sack adult's attempts to get his groove back.  That must be why Hook's injections of realism come at such awkward angles to the ongoing story—it's because this story keeps flinching.  And it must also be how we get Hook's several, mildly-upsetting interstitial scenes, which soak in the weird brine of female sexual frustration, either Wendy's—for she, having grown old, was thrown over for her own granddaughter when Peter finally decided to grow up himselfor Tinkerbell'swho, we find out, stole a damned baby, and apparently later decided she wanted to bone it.  (Meanwhile, just don't ask how an infant grew to the cusp of pubescence in a fantasy world whose most well-known property is that it keeps you the same age you were as when you arrived—but do, on the other hand, give Maggie Smith credit for finding the right notes of bittersweetness as the aged Wendy to enunciate her particular heartache.)

Man, everybody wants a piece of this guy.

There is, I imagine, a mature and fascinating version of Hook that someone not named Steven Spielberg might have made; but this version, of course, is interested only in the juvenilia of Neverland, on one hand, and in its father-son-abductor triangle, on the other.  (And not so much the father-daughter-abductor triangle: it is difficult to understand why Maggie is actually in this movie in the first place, since her only contribution, outside of singing a song that I could just as easily do without, is to contrast Jack's seduction into the life of an awesome pirate.)

But the result, I should hasten to add, is a film that offers its fair share of sugary, giddy enjoyability—precisely the stuff we go to Spielberg's airier pictures to see.  Take, for instance, that opening act: outside of a grotesquely misjudged "cellphone duel," it's a pristine example of drawing out the pleasures of a mystery that you already know the answer to, largely substituting plot development with its delightfully ominous mood.  (It is a mood enhanced inestimably, of course, by the lovely work of cinematographer Dean Cundey; Cundey, after moving from Carpenter's B-movies to Zemeckis' blockbusters, had now reached the topmost tier of his profession by working with Spielberg—and he would be replaced the moment Spielberg met Janusz Kaminski.  But that's clearly a story for another time; for now, let us say that while Cundey's return to the 'Scope frame in Hook might never get better than the spooky, lurid Suspira-lite of Wendy's childhood bedroom, it's awfully damned fine throughout.)

In any event, once we arrive at Neverland, we find it beautifully-realized; the best parts of the movie all involve Peter's reunion with the Lost Boys, and the high point must be the dinner scene where he at last remembers how to tap into the child within, imagining the banquet before him where a moment before there had been nothing but plates.  It's also the scene where he remembers how to throw out some delirious, possibly-improvised insults; yet I think his rival for command of the Lost Boys, the unforgettable Rufio, honestly gets the better of him when he brands Peter a "fart factory."

I lost it.  I'm a braying jackass.

Oh, RU-FI-O!, you poor bastard, kicked aside the moment the Pan makes his comeback.  It shall always remain a curiosity why Spielberg invests Rufio with so much characterization, without making him a character.  But if we think about Rufio for too long, that leads us inexorably down the rough road of considering all the more interesting films that Hook could have been: the story of Rufio, the lad who's kept these Lost Boys together for going on three decades; a version of this same story, where Moira actually tags along, shocked to discover that her grandmother's stories were real; a brittle romance that genuinely engaged with whatever the hell is going on with Tinkerbell;  etc.  So let's not go down that path too far, and simply stick with damning Robin Williams with faint praise.  He's hits his peak right in the middle of the film, when he's reacquiring Peter's Pannishness; and he ranges wildlyfrom basically appealing to largely adequate to (you guessed it) obnoxiously shtickyeverywhere else.

But what of Hook himself?  Dustin Hoffman absolutely earns the inversion of that title, delivering as good an impression of the cartoon Hook as anybody could in live action (and ribboned, all the way through, with his pleasingly camp interplay with Bob Hoskins' Smee).  Hoffman goes beyond mimickry, however, and finds something unique when he latches fearsomely onto his character's most compelling grace notes, taking the villain into a subtle but winning examination of his own fictional roledespondent at the thought of a loser Pan who can't properly challenge him, and unable to conceive of anything outside of his great "war" with a 12 year old child, he asks, rightly, "What would the world be like without Captain Hook?"

Well, as far as Neverland goes, mainly just early 20th century racism.

Take Hoffman too seriously, however, and once again we start thinking about all the better Hooks that could have existed; and that shall really get us nowhere.

Hook succeedsdespite its frequent dips into panderingin its middle.  And so long as Pan and Hook are kept apart, and so long as the film is content to hang out in Neverland, it's tremendously frothy fun.  It's almost ironic that whenever Spielberg returns to the central conflict, it falls apart completely, like in the unbelievably stupid bit where Peter tries to write Captain Hook a check, and even moreso in a climax that tries to split the difference between adult-oriented deadly stakes and its heaping helping of Bugsy Malone-ish play-fighting (though I feel like I just insulted Bugsy Malone, where the egg cremes did at least purport to kill).  It fails, rather miserablythough I suppose that in the final battle we do learn the reason that Rufio exists, when he fulfills the only other function he still has.

Sad, really.

But God, it's so awfully longso long that even Hook's bitchin' demise doesn't manage to completely save it.

Ultimately, Hook is pedestrian Spielberg, an attempt to hybridize his increasing awareness of his own maturity and the innocent, childlike wonder that defined so many of his earlier films.  When it works, it works very well; but when it doesn't, which is often, it stumbles hard, and in these moments it leaves you with nothing but restless thoughts, of how great it might have been.

Score:  6/10

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