I have a very strange relationship with this film. It was the first Spielberg film I saw after my parents moved out-of-state, and it felt pretty weird sitting down to one without my dad sitting next to me. Which you would think would fit nicely into the themes that the film tries to play with. But instead, it only reminded me of the many — and better — films I saw with my dad. I remember telling myself as the credits rolled that it wasn’t that bad, but soon I realized I was just trying to convince myself that I hadn’t actually seen a Spielberg film that I flat-out disliked. I wanted him to be this unassailable icon who could do no wrong, and he’d just spent the last two and a half hours showing me he absolutely could.
Because for me, this is the first of his films where the seams show, where you can see the rabbit waiting inside the hat and the scarves up the sleeves. Spielberg was just trying too damn hard here, and every ounce of that effort is there on the screen. Instead of feeling enchanted and uplifted, I felt pummeled, as if Spielberg was reaching out of the screen, grabbing me by the lapels, and demanding to know why I wasn’t having a good time.
Yet at the same time, it feels lazy, like his heart wasn’t in it. He’d been rumored to be making a Peter Pan film for so long, it’s like he finally threw up his arms and said, “Fine, here’s your goddamn movie” (a situation that repeats itself with a film later — and not very much later — in this list). Neverland never looks like anything but a set on a sound stage or a matte painting, the Lost Boys are the most obvious, politically correct mix imaginable, and there’s never any doubt that Peter’s going to learn his lesson and save the day, and no exultation when he finally does. All the bells and whistles are there, but they’re hollow, all visual and no heart. You realize you’re supposed to be feeling something, but it’s more like being told what something feels like rather than experiencing it yourself. Instead of being told a fairy tale, we’re being given a very detailed synopsis, so we hit all the high points, but we’re not invested in the journey.
And that’s too bad, because the basic idea of the film is pretty sound, and particularly resonant for Spielberg and his fans. He, and they (and me, if we’re to be completely honest here), were growing up, yet in a lot of ways still holding on to their childhoods, not wanting to deal with the adult world while they still had all these great toys to play with. The idea of a grown-up Peter dealing with his childhood and choosing to move on could have been pretty poignant, and the film does pay lip service to it, but it gives him the crutch of a family back home to help him make the decision. What would a grown-up Peter with no attachments to the real world decide to do? That’s the makings of a good version of Hook.
There’s one scene that’s both my favorite and my least favorite in the film, because it comes so close to being truly moving and therefore a painful shadow of what the film could have been. Peter has just disarmed Hook and swiped his hat and wig away, revealing a tired old man playing dress-up, trying to relive former glories that have slipped away. Hook looks up, pleading for his hat and wig so he can maintain his dignity. But he’s really asking to retain the illusion of youth, to hold on what he used to be for as long as he can, because growing old scares him to death. Which is pretty much what Spielberg is doing with this film. He wanted us to believe he was Peter, but really, he was Hook.
I will praise on thing — the score. I got the soundtrack a few weeks before the film came out, and listening to the overture and “The Ultimate War” track, I thought we were going to get something really epic. Instead we got a fat kid imitating a bowling ball. John Williams seemed to be the only person on the production who added any magic to the proceedings, and I still listen to the score today, imagining the much better film he must have been watching when he wrote it.
I know there’s a lot of love for this film, but I wonder how much of that is fueled by nostalgia for the time in which those people saw it rather than by the film itself, a Goonies for those born to late to claim The Goonies for themselves. For me, it’s the one Spielberg film I haven’t completely re-watched since seeing it in the theater. I’ve made all kinds of apologies for other films of his, but this is the one I simply can’t offer any excuses for. I can safely say deserves to bring up the rear in his filmography.