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SYFY WIRE Steven Spielberg

How Spielberg's 'Hook' paved the way for the modern legacy sequel, for better and worse

Spielberg's nostalgic view of Peter Pan set the stage for a whole subgenre of blockbusters.

By Matthew Jackson
Hook (1991) PRESS

I was five years old when Steven Spielberg's Hook arrived in movie theaters in December of 1991, which means I probably would've been about six when my father brought the film home from the video store for me to watch for the first time.

Thanks to my age, and the presence of a Disney's Peter Pan VHS tape in my house, I was primed to be an easy mark for Spielberg's big-budget trip into a slightly darker version of J.M. Barrie's magical world, but it wasn't just all in my head. If you were around the same age in 1991 or 1992, you know that everything from Happy Meal Toys to Lost Boys playsets led you to believe that Hook was one of the biggest and most important things in the world, a doorway to a new version of a cartoon world that already lived in your brain thanks to the Disney film. 

The adult reality of Hook at the time is that the film arrived to a mixed reception, generating substantial but not spectacular box office, lackluster reviews, and five Oscar nominations — and no wins. It was by no means an all-out failure, but considering Spielberg's performance in the 1980s, and considering the film was directly followed by the juggernaut that was Jurassic Park, it has historically been considered a disappointment. 

Unless you're like me, one of those people who found Hook at the right time and got swept up in its particular magic. Because of that video store rental 30 years ago, there's still a place in my heart for this film that allows me to watch a few breezy minutes of it every now and then when it pops up on cable, and keeps it living somewhere in the back of my brain. When I realized that this year marks the 30th anniversary of this fascinating experiment in nostalgia, that basement door somewhere in my head creaked open, and I started thinking about Hook in a way that I hadn't before. Why? Well, blame Ghostbusters: Afterlife

The two films don't share much in common, apart from being sequels to decades-old stories and their family-friendly framing, but in the lead-up to Afterlife's release earlier this year, people kept throwing a word around: Amblin, a reference to Spielberg's production company. Amblin is responsible for producing everything from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to Poltergeist to Tiny Toon Adventures. Through a combination of time and the weird juxtapositions brought on by nostalgia and skewed memory, the word "Amblin" has become a kind of shorthand for the "Kids on Bikes" subgenre of genre-tinted adventure stories, covering everything from Stranger Things to Rim of the World to, yes, Ghostbusters: Afterlife. As a result, it's also become another word for Nostalgia Porn, the kind of story some critics and audiences deride because they choose to deliberately mine our collective childhood for recognizable mementos. 

There's no shortage of nostalgia in Spielberg's filmography, whether you're talking about his constant explorations of fragmented families, his plumbing of the emotional depths of American heroism, or his fondness for certain filmmaking styles and tricks (his latest film is a remake of West Side Story). But if you're talking in terms of "Amblin"-ness as we think of the word now, the nostalgia mining might not get any purer than it does in Hook. It is, in many ways, the template for the modern legacy sequel. 

Hook is, of course, certainly not the first film to act as a sequel to a story that arrived decades earlier, nor is it the first to attempt to excavate the events of the original story and contextualize them in a new way. What it does do, though, is excavate those things with a kind of reverence that only Spielberg can muster, through craft and emotion and the kind of childlike joy he brings to cinema as an artform. It's no accident that Spielberg, who grew up making movies around his house and sneaking onto Universal Studios' backlot, was drawn to a film that both textually and subtextually hinges on a man who must fight to remember and reclaim his entire childhood, lest he lose his own children. It's also no accident that Spielberg spends the entire film surrounding Peter Banning (Robin Williams) with reminders of the childhood he's forgotten or let slip away; from bottled ships to window latches, Hook constantly waves the important things Peter must not lose in front of his face, until Peter finally gets it. Yes, some of these reminders are corny and a bit unsubtle even by Spielbergian standards, but the message is clear: Remembering childhood joy is literally so important that you will lose everything important to you in adulthood unless you can call all those memories back from the brink. 

It's this reverence for childhood memory, the way it's treated like a sacred thing that shouldn't be profaned with the banality of adulthood, that stands out about Hook now, 30 years later, in a movie landscape crowded with everything from Halloween to Star Wars to Ghostbusters reboots or rebootquels. Unlike many of these films, Hook is not particularly obsessed with continuity — in part because it was not a Disney release and therefore couldn't necessarily refer directly to the original Pan film — but there are moments within it that serve as a kind of prelude to the continuity-driven legacy moments we get now. In Hook, Tootles' marbles are not important... until they are. In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the Millennium Falcon is garbage... until it isn't. In Hook, the original Lost Boys treehouse is a dusty hole... until it conjures up the catalyst for the entire (and spectacular) third act. In Ghostbusters: Afterlife Egon's house is a dirt farm, until it points the way to an entire legacy for a family to reclaim.

Just as he helped set the template for the modern blockbuster with Jaws (and then Close Encounters, and then Raiders of the Lost Ark, and then Jurassic Park...), Spielberg's combination of reverence, playfulness, and cinematic literalism in Hook helped set the stage for the legacy sequels we're all living through right now. Whether consciously or unconsciously, as with so much of genre film history over the last 45 years, countless filmmakers are following his path, and like Hook itself, the path is a mixed bag.

Sometimes it's a deeply emotional journey into things we thought we'd forgotten that stir us back to life, and sometimes it's a cheap exercise in reminding us of things we could never forget because they're ubiquitous enough to border on cliche. If nothing else, though, Hook's legacy serves to further underline one of the great pop culture maxims of the past four decades: Spielberg's influence can never be overestimated.