'THE boy who wouldn't grow up." That describes Peter Pan, of course. But many would apply it just as readily to Steven Spielberg, director of the movie, "Hook."Mr. Spielberg's career has reached its highest points in pictures like "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark," snappy celebrations of childhood and adolescent fantasy. Even his attempts at grown-up moviemaking, such as "The Color Purple" and "Empire of the Sun," portray much of their action through the eyes of youngsters. One could say Spielberg is a perpetual child himself - stalled in immaturity, and primed to give us 12-year-old movies for the rest of his life. Or one could say he concentrates on kids as a matter of intellectual choice to establish himself as Hollywood's leading specialist in cinema for and about the young. Either way, he has undeniable talent as a filmmaker, and it's a pity he rarely focuses this on material of real substance. He's an expert at reflecting the world of youth, but he almost never explores it in any depth. "Hook" is Spielberg's attempt at a big, bold hit after the disappointment of "Empire of the Sun" and the outright dullness of "Always," the last picture he directed. "Hook" certainly has impressive ingredients: a timeless story, a budget reported at $60-80 million, and a cast teaming Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman with Julia Roberts and lots of winsome children. It also has Spielberg's usual energy. The trouble is, much of the movie seems wired and overeager when it ought to be refreshing and relaxed. Everybody sweats and strains to be magical, and while they often succeed, the onslaught of so much aggressive charm is exhausting. It's also confusing. Not content to simply retell "Peter Pan," Spielberg has injected it with '90s relevance, and scrambled the story in the process. Peter is now a grown-up American lawyer who's forgotten his fantastical past; he even neglects his own children, missing Jack's softball game and chattering on his cellular phone during Maggie's school play. While visiting Granny Wendy in London, the kids are kidnapped to Neverland by Captain Hook - and if Peter's going to save them, he has to forget his le gal training and remember the Happy Thoughts that will let him fly to the rescue. Young children will probably be mystified by the movie's first half-hour, which serves up a discombobulated stew of fairy-tale nostalgia, modern-day anxiety, and abrupt plot twists. Things get clearer when we arrive in Neverland, where Hook presides over his pirate band and fights off the Lost Boys, who help Peter regain his flying skills. The climax is colorful and frenetic - closer to a food fight than a battle - and the ending is predictably happy, although Hook's doom in a crocodile's jaws may be too grisly for the youngest spectators. In a movie that works too hard for its effects, it's ironic that Mr. Williams gives the most assured performance of his career, playing Peter with a confidence and conviction he's never shown before. The rest of the acting is solid, with stand-out work from Mr. Hoffman as the villain, Bob Hoskins as the pirate Smee, and Charlie Korsmo as Peter's son Jack. Also impressive are Norman Garwood's production design and Dean Cundey's cinematography, even though the wintry London scenes include about 300 shots that look like Christmas-album jackets. Less praiseworthy is the screenplay by Jim V. Hart and Malia Scotch Marmo, which compounds its confusions by overstuffing the story with Freudian overtones - with not one but two father figures. Despite its shortcomings, "Hook" deserves credit for reviving interest in a wonderful tale and believing in the spirit (if not always the practice) of old-fashioned storytelling. In all, though, I prefer the original J. M. Barrie book - which I found surprisingly sophisticated when I read it to my children years ago - and the Mary Martin version that looked so glorious on television in the 1950s. I also agree with the opinion of one Hollywood observer that "Hook" is likely to be a big hit without becoming truly beloved as "E.T." and other genuine classics are. It lights up your eyes, but it doesn't quite warm your heart.
The film is rated PG.