As the title character in Steven Spielberg’s Hook (PG), Dustin Hoffman is hidden under pounds of ornate costuming — flowing black musketeer curls, a 17th-century mariner’s coat with lace shooting out the cuffs, blocky-elegant shoes with shiny red heels. Almost nothing about this man seems to have very much to do with flesh. Yet his face, which peeks out from beneath all that luxurious, strangling drapery, is feverish, almost mad, with delight.

Hoffman, in his repertoire of expressions, has always had a gawky, blissed-out smile. Here, that dufus grin is practically plastered onto his face. His Captain Hook is crafty, exuberant, cock-of-the-walk, a villain who drinks in the pleasure of his own nastiness. And yet — for this is Hoffman’s genius — he’s not a monster. Hook’s voice, with its rolling British cadences, its echoes of Boris Karloff’s lispy melancholy, is unexpectedly gentle, even fawning. At times, Hoffman might be doing a parody of those effete, decadent British villains of the ’50s and early ’60s. Hook, who seems to revel in how grotesque he is, is harmlessly, lyrically nutty. He’s childish, as much of an arrested development case as the Lost Boys he’s always chasing after. He’s not a villain you love to hate — he’s one you like to like.

There’s a reason Hook looks so delighted. (On his bad days, he’s given to half-baked suicide attempts.) Peter Pan, who is now a 40-year-old attorney named Peter Banning (Robin Williams), has returned to Neverland, flying there on a cloud of fairy dust to rescue his two children, whom Hook has kidnapped. Hook is eager for a showdown, but Peter, who has no memory of his life as a puckish sprite, isn’t up to it. He’s flabby, anxious — the sort of careless, selfish father who has one ear glued to his cellular phone and who never shows up at his son’s Little League games. Hook has granted him three days’ grace, so that the Lost Boys can whip him back into shape. Can Peter regain touch with the wild child he once was?

It’s hard not to bring great expectations to Hook — Spielberg’s attempt, after nearly a decade of hyperkinetic roller-coaster rides (the Indiana Jones series) and misguided forays into the Real World (The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Always), to return to the pure-hearted fantasy material he has brought off with more excitement and magic than any other filmmaker. Hook is jam-packed with ”entertainment value,” enough to give you your money’s worth, and to guarantee (in all probability) that Spielberg earns his. Yet something has clouded this director’s vision. Except for Hoffman’s performance, the movie is so frenetic, so bursting with movement and rowdiness and special effects, so drenched in gooey, mythic sentiment about the child within, that nothing in it quite gels. The problem isn’t that Spielberg has lost his gift for fantasy. It’s that he no longer seems to know (or care) about anything else.

When Peter arrives in Neverland, it looks like the set for some over-budgeted, cast-of-thousands musical from the late ’60s. Hook’s fantastically huge galleon dominates the local dock, and the whole place is teeming with grinning pirates and bathed in overly bright fake sunshine. Spielberg must have wanted everything to look cheesy on purpose, and as long as Hoffman is strutting up and down the deck of his ship, making juicy threats, it works. Peter and his two children (Charlie Korsmo and Amber Scott) seem to have entered a surreal Hollywood-backlot nightmare.

Peter goes off with the Lost Boys, which is when the movie should sweep us up into the wonder of Neverland. Instead, it turns into a fairy-tale aerobics workout, with Peter getting pummeled into shape at the Boys’ woodland hangout (which feels every bit as stagy and enclosed as the set for Hook’s galleon). Spielberg’s idea of childhood turns out to be a lot of noisy, macho roughhousing, which the movie inflates into junior — Robert Bly bonding. In one scene, Peter and his chief rival try to top each other with gross-out insults — a funny bit, until one of the boys smiles at Peter and says, ”You’re doing it, using your imagination!” Peter, in addition, has to discover his ”happy thought,” the equivalent of Billy Crystal getting in touch with the ”one thing” he loves in City Slickers. Except that the happy-thought business is repeated ad nauseam. Instead of letting his themes emerge naturally, Spielberg keeps punching up the mystical undertones. By the time Peter is reborn as Peter Pan, complete with green tights, a fawnlike stare, and what looks like an Elizabeth Arden perm, it’s borderline embarrassing, because this Peter has too little connection to the adult he once was. He’s so ”pure” he’s an airbrushed fantasy of born-again boyhood.

There is, of course, lots of flying, and young kids will love this stuff. You’re always aware of the effects, though, because Spielberg hasn’t integrated the matte shots, storybook backgrounds, and other technical devices into the story; they’re held up for the audience to ooh and aah over. Julia Roberts, in particular, suffers from his obsession with technical bravado. Wearing a Lulu-style pixie hairdo that doesn’t flatter her (why does everything in this movie seem left over from the kitschy ’60s?), she tries hard to make Tinkerbell into a sharp-tongued, tomboy spunkette, but she keeps getting zapped in and out of the picture. The whole movie zaps you. Spielberg piles on flashbacks, sword fights, baseball games. It’s Peter Pan redone with a channel selector.

Spielberg once made us respond to the fantastic by revealing the hidden wonder in the world around us. Jaws wasn’t just a shocker about a monster shark: It was the riveting human drama of three desperate men on a boat. Close Encounters of the Third Kind took off from a lovingly detailed portrait of working-class suburbia — you could practically feel the mound of shaving cream in which Richard Dreyfuss first saw the image of Devils Tower. And E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was grounded in one boy’s lonely desire for an earthly friend. What’s missing from Hook is any sense that Spielberg, as an artist, remains in touch with the essential current of everyday experience. His whole vision of what it means to return to childhood seems like some whiz-bang concept derived from the media. Like Michael Jackson, he has spent too many years cloistered with his gizmos, his empire, his blockbuster dreams. The loss is everybody’s. B-

  • Movie
  • 144 minutes