Despite the fact that we’re getting pretty close to its 75 year anniversary, The Wizard of Oz is just as recognized and celebrated today as it’s ever been, and we’ll probably still be showing it to our kids another 75 years from now. There’s good reason for that. Its music is gorgeous and iconic, its cinematography is ageless, and its production design and in-living-color presentation must have been something to see back in 1939. But, in the grand scheme of things, is this really a movie that’s so great that we should still be treating it with so much reverence? Or has watching The Wizard of Oz simply become a tradition we mindlessly follow, like always eating a turkey on Thanksgiving or puking up green food coloring on St Patrick’s Day?
Steven Spielberg’s 1991 film Hook spins off of a legendary story, continues the tale of a handful of legendary characters, and was brought to us by maybe the most legendary director there’s ever been… but to say that it isn’t considered a legendary movie would be a pretty big understatement. It’s got a tone right in line with the best of Spielberg’s work, and it’s photographed just as beautifully as anything else he’s done, but ever since its release it has largely been considered a trifle, or even an annoyance. Critics have called Hook full of bad humor, overstuffed with exposition, and devoid of any of the magic of the original Peter Pan tale. Many consider it to be Spielberg’s worst film, or even his only failure.
Is that right?
What do they have in common?
Both of these movies are fairy tales with one foot in the real world and one foot in the fantastic. In The Wizard of Oz Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) is shunted from a Kansas farm to a mythical land full of witches and little people called Oz. In Hook a curmudgeonly lawyer named Peter Banning (Robin Williams) and his children are abducted from a house in London and taken to a world called Neverland where kids run wild in the forests, mermaids swim in the waters, and all adults are pirates.
In addition to sharing similar subject matter, both of these movies look a lot alike as well. They’re shot on elaborate sets rather than in real locations, and they look like classic studio films in the most traditional sense.
Also, both feature sentient plants with abrasive personalities. That’s probably weird enough to mention.
Why is The Wizard of Oz overrated?
The Wizard of Oz’s sets just don’t have what it takes to really make you believe you’re in a different world. What might have looked amazing to audiences in the late 30s comes off as sparse and confined to modern eyes. Sure, there’s a lot of imagination that went into the weird designs of these locations, but it’s always so apparent that what you’re watching is taking place on a sound stage that it’s hard to become immersed in the story. The scenery isn’t detailed or lived-in enough to be anything other than props, and the crudity of the painted backdrops always betrays how small the sets really are.
I mean, the castle that the magic wizard lives in looks like the lobby of an office building. During its establishing scene I kept wondering who the janitor was that polished the floors so thoroughly. That doesn’t exactly conjure up feelings of wonder, even when a horse that changes colors is hanging out.
Dorothy’s motivations are too paper thin to be engaging, and the thrust of the film’s narrative is a little too linear to really excite as well. Dorothy’s a cold fish as far as protagonists go. She doesn’t really grow or change over the course of the film—she just encounters things and reacts to them with a “gee whiz” attitude. Sure, there’s some lip service at the end about how everything she’s has gone through was supposed to teach her a lesson, but what lesson? That people should stay in their sleepy small towns because the rest of the world is dangerous? What a crappy lesson. And it’s coming from the character of Glinda, who can’t be trusted.
She sticks those slippers on Dorothy even though she knows it’ll make her a target, watches her and her compatriots suffer throughout their journey, only steps in when they’re about to die, and then pretends like she did it all to teach them some kind of condescending lesson. Why couldn’t she have just floated them to the wizard in one of her pink bubbles? What a passive aggressive jerk.
And while the first two-thirds of the film are fun due to all the discovery involved, The Wizard of Oz is a movie that peters out in its third act. The build up to the reveal of the Emerald City is great, but once you get there it’s just to hear mouthfuls of history and exposition, and then the movie transfers into a boring rescue-Dorothy-from-the-witch plot that’s never presented seriously enough to feel important. Basically it’s all killing time and creating false drama so Glinda can give her “there’s no place like home” lecture. If The Wizard of Oz had gone someplace great after they made it to the wizard, it might deserve its position as an all-time classic, but, as is, it’s relying quite a bit on nostalgia to maintain relevance.
Why is Hook underpraised?
Much like in Oz, most of the action of Hook takes place on sets, and the effect is that the world feels less like a place you could live and more like a theme park ride you could buy a ticket to. The difference here is that the sets are so expansive and elaborate that the fact that they exist is impressive in its own right. Both films’ scenery puts a lot of imagination on display, but Hook takes things a step further by adding in so much detail that you want to pause the film and study every frame. Hook’s ship, the Lost Boys’ tree houses, they never look real, but they do look like they’ve actually been in use for quite a while, and there’s some magic in that.
Say what you will about Robin Williams—I’m not really a fan myself—but there’s no denying that Hook’s supporting actors really step up to the plate. Pan’s children (Charlie Korsmo and Amber Scott) are both natural beyond their years in front of the camera, and the child actors who play the Lost Boys are varied and full of personality. But the supporting adults are the ones who really get a chance to shine. Maggie Smith is a magnetic presence as Wendy; she lends so much credibility to everything she does. Julia Roberts actually shows some personality here, rather than just being generically Julia Roberts-esque like she is in most other things. And, best of all, Dustin Hoffman and Bob Hoskins are hilarious playing Hook and Smee like a classic comedy team throwback to the days of vaudeville. If they took their act on the road, I’d buy a ticket.
The thing that truly makes Hook underpraised, however, is the menace and danger it brings to its adventure elements. The scene where Peter and his wife come home to find Hook’s horrible claw mark making its way along the wall and up to the children’s bedroom is truly terrifying. And the final battle between the Lost Boys and the pirates, sure it’s a lot of fun… but there’s also some real drama going on. Somebody frickin’ dies! Just imagine how many kids would have cried if the Cowardly Lion got whacked by the flying monkeys. That could have really pushed Oz over the top into being something memorable.
Evening the Odds
If the main job of a fantasy film is to take you someplace fantastic and new, then Hook works a bit better than The Wizard of Oz. I mean, would anyone rather live in the Munchkin Village than out in the woods with Rufio and the Lost Boys? Rather spend their lives worshiping witches and wizards like deities instead of doing battle with pirates?
In Neverland everyone gets to fly, in Oz it’s just the witches.