It's not nice to fool with Mother Literature, not even if you're Steven Spielberg.
Spielberg's $70 million spin on "Peter Pan," titled "Hook," sets about to "improve" the original story by giving it more relevance to our dysfunctional times. But has he never heard the bromide that if it isn't broke, don't fix it?
The movie isn't a disgrace or a disaster or an embittering disappointment; but it's not much more than routinely OK, now and then stirring to life, but more commonly just wending its slow and laborious way toward the first star on the right, just under the green EXIT sign.
The new wrinkle that justifies the capital investment of 70 million hard-to-come-by dollars in the classic J. M. Barrie story is that now Peter, having finally given up on Never Never Land, has come to earth and, as all golden lads and lasses must, grown up. His memory mercifully blunted by culture shock, he's developed into a 40-year-old American businessman, proud father of two children (Amber Scott and Charlie Korsmo) but like so many of us, is inattentive to them (he's some sort of super financier too busy to go to his own son's Little League game).
Robin Williams inhabits this role comfortably while in no way ever ceasing to be Robin Williams. He's pleasant and he can play the stretch -- harried businessman enslaved by his phone to boy god of the air, sword fighter extraordinaire, gamin of the green-tights set -- but he's somewhat overwhelmed by the immensity of the production.
Taking his wife and kids to London (he's the ward of the original Wendy, now a nonagenarian played in the movie's best performance by the great Maggie Smith, and I wish the movie had been about her), he wakes up one morning to find his children gone. Hook has taken them.
Hook, of course, is Dustin Hoffman, the King James version, with a black periwinkle, ruffles and frills, a red waistcoat, silk stocking over his buckled shoes, a dirk and an attitude problem. Hook's bored; he wants to have a last go at the boy who guilelessly fed his hand to a 'gator, although from a public relations standpoint this was definitely a good move careerwise.
So a chubby, atrophied Pete must get to Never Never Land to find his kids. It doesn't help that he's forgotten to fly and that he now represents all those sober adult virtues that his boyish self held in such contempt; this somewhat limits his utility as a symbol of youth's eternal freedom and as a guerrilla fighter.
The kernel of the story has some dramatic possibility: The oafish man must find the forgotten, exiled boy inside him to save his own children. Too bad it's crushed under a leaden ingot of high-priced whimsy. They didn't spread fairy dust on this baby, they covered it with growth hormone.
Its gigantism pays fewer dividends as the thing plods along. The sets -- elaborate pirate ships moored in a Caribbean shantytown hard by tricky work-up of a boys' treehouse society complete to skateboard ramps -- all have that fake-quaint theme park feel to them. You're not in Never Never Land, you're in Disney Disney World.
Much time is wasted watching poor Williams "prove himself" to the revised edition of the Lost Boys, now, for reasons that make no sense, done up in punk hairdos and ragamuffin street-fightin' duds. Do they get MTV in Never Never Land? In fact, the whole thing looks like a huge musical without numbers.
Moreover, in some subtle way, the changes wreak havoc on the psychic substructure of the story. Hook is usually played by the same actor who plays the children's father, whether it's Cyril Ritchard (in the famous stage and TV version) or Hans Conried (in the wonderful Disney version). This firmly roots Never Never Land in the Oedipal subconscious; it's a drama of separation, where the Bad Victorian Father becomes the dominating Pirate Captain and the children, seething with hostility at his rejection, invent a phantom boy to stand for their pain. The father-pirate is vanquished, but the victor is forgotten; the real children, liberated from their father's rejection, return to the Always Always Land of adult responsibility. That's what gives the story such haunting resonance.
To infuse the Peter character with attributes of both father and son is to make hash out of the story. Hook, by result, loses his meaning; he becomes just a silly old pirate. And that's exactly what happens. Hoffman's Hook is somewhat like Hoffman's Dutch in "Billy Bathgate": a fabulous invention who keeps getting pushed to the edges of the picture by the less interesting materials, namely a game but ridiculous Julia Roberts in what looks like a Camp Fire Girl uniform that got stuck in the spin cycle too long. She's also about 3 inches tall, courtesy of the sort of optical magic that now seems commonplace. Yet somehow she lacks the personality of the Tinkerbell in the great Mary Martin version -- and if you remember back that far, in that production Tink was played by a spot of light.
P.P., phone home. Or at least, get a new agent.
Starring Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Released by Tri-Star.