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My Misspent Youth In Films...

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, Julia Roberts
Released: December 11, 1991

When Captain James Hook kidnaps his children, an adult Peter Pan must return to Neverland and reclaim his youthful spirit in order to challenge his old enemy.

What I Thought Then

A big fantasy adventure starring Mork. It was whimsical and visually inventive. We came back to it a lot. Also, the boo box was kind of scary to think about.

What I Think Now

Robin Williams is Peter Banning, a doughy workaholic absent father who goes with his family to visit his wife's grandmother and childhood home in London, which happens to be the same home where Peter Pan visited Wendy Darling in the stories that would later be fictionalized into the stories by J. M. Barrie. While there, his children are kidnapped by Captain Hook because, it turns out, Peter Banning is in fact Peter Pan, now all grown up and having entirely forgotten his childhood. Now he must return to Neverland to get them back, and also to rediscover the importance of childhood, or something like that. Maudlin hijinks ensue.

So, I still like this movie--in fact, I think I like it more now as a middle-aged adult than I did as a kid--but I also get why critics largely dismissed it. It's... very weird. And it doesn't completely cohere. There are a lot of ideas that all got glommed together, evidence of a script that got heavily re-written throughout the life of the project, and feel a little out of sorts. Why, for instance, does Amber Scott break into song in Act II? Well, because at one point this was supposed to be a musical, and they really liked that song so they kept it. A lot of this inconsistency can be hand-waved away by "kid logic". I don't mean this as a pejorative, either. Children understand the world differently from adults, and tapping into that can make something otherwise incoherent still feel real. And this movie has all the big emotions, goofy humor, and small stakes that feel huge that you would expect. I mean, just consider the sequence where the Lost Boys are putting on armor by walking through walls of it or unrolling it down their bodies like window blinds. Are these in any way practical? No. But they're the kind of thing a kid would think is cool. Kid logic prevails.

Of course, this is a little undermined by the subplot about Tinkerbell wanting to bang Peter... You could make an argument that the film is thematically about the way childhood effectively ends when you develop an interest in sex, but that to be an effective parent you have to find your way back to childishness. Which, again, is kind of an odd place for the movie to go, but there it is. Hey, remember when you were twelve and saw some animated character and started to feel a little... aroused... and it was weird and confusing? Yeah, let's make a movie about that.

Despite its plot and tone weirdness, there's a charm and a magic to this film. Steven Spielberg is an expert at getting awe and wonder onto the screen, and he really pulls out all the stops here, aided by winning performances from Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams. And Bob Hoskins! He's amazing in this. And Julia Roberts is great too. Spielberg also pulls his trick of getting incredibly talented people to come in for very minor roles. Glenn Close is in this movie for exactly half of one scene, and you'd never know it was her unless it was pointed out to you (she's the pirate who gets put into "the boo box"). Phil Collins shows up to deliver like three lines of dialog. Jimmy Buffett has a cameo as a pirate. Gwenyth Paltrow is in the film for a twenty second montage. Supposedly Carrie Fisher and George Lucas are the couple on the bridge. (Oh, hey, literally everyone ever is in this!)

In terms of things that have or have not aged well, the effects are mostly pretty good. The movie is going for style over realism, so while you'd never look at that shot of Peter flying over Neverland, which has a compass rose sitting there in the ocean, and think it was realistic, it feels like it fits in this movie. When Thudd rolls up in a ball, it doesn't look real or even remotely comfortable, but it works. This is another instance of Spielberg being really good at working within the limitations of the technology to tell an effective story. And the end result is a movie that's uneven, but extremely watchable.


Yes. For all its misfires, it's still very compelling.

Tune in next week to find out how easily classic love songs can be repurposed into religious music...

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.