Remembering Robin Williams: Lessons Learned from Hook

I really wish I could write better news today. As everyone is, I’m sure, already aware: the world has lost a great man in the passing of actor/comedian Robin Williams. To lose him so suddenly is gut-wrenching, the fact that he likely took his own life is heart-breaking. In moments like these, the importance of one man is paramount. Everywhere I went last night on the internet had tributes, memorials, and people expressing their shared grief. It is true that many die each day, but not many live a life like Robin Williams. He brought joy and laughter to everyone he touched. You didn’t have to know him, you didn’t even have to meet him in person. He possessed a rare gift that many of us yearn to have – the focus of attention – and he used it to bring happiness to the world.

Not everyone changes a culture the way that Robin Williams did.
Not everyone changes a culture the way that Robin Williams did.

In writing a tribute, I have decided to focus on the first Robin Williams movie I can remember seeing. I did not know him as a person, I only knew he liked video games since he named his daughter Zelda. Like so many, I only knew him through his craft. That can be a distorted picture because, as an actor, Williams inhabited many characters he did not create. He did not write them, he did not direct the scenes. Yet the gift of a good actor is the personal touches they bring to each role, and in this Robin Williams transferred a little of himself to each movie he was in. In this way, I believe that this is a very appropriate time to talk about Hook.

For those who do not know, Hook tells the story of an adult Peter Pan (Robin Williams) who has left Neverland to live in the real world. He is a married lawyer with two young children. His life is not perfect as Peter has become consumed in his work. He neglects his children, his family, and himself. If that was not bad enough, everything is hurled into chaos when Hook returns and kidnaps his children. With the help of Tinkerbell and the Lost Boys, Peter must rediscover his true self and defeat Captain Hook to return home. It is not a complicated plot, and is a fair adventure movie in its own right.

What I feel makes this movie so relevant to write about is that it is essentially a film about rediscovering the joys of life. In the beginning of the movie, Williams looks miserable. He is irritable towards everyone and clearly stressed about his life situation. Essentially, he is a man so concerned about doing well at life that he has… well, forgot how to live. To him – money is all that matters. It is likely that Peter initially only wanted to be successful to support his family and provide a good life for them, but he has gone to the extreme of shutting everyone out in order to focus. Through his performance, Robin Williams conveys the appropriate isolation and misery that this lifestyle brings and thus serves as a warning for the audience.

Even on vacation, Peter is never separated from the unsatisfied desire to do more.
Even on vacation, Peter is never separated from the unsatisfied desire to do more.

Where Williams really shines, however, is conveying the beauty of relearning what it means to enjoy life. I can remember watching Hook as a kid and the one scene that perhaps sticks out the clearest is when Peter Pan rediscovers how to fly.

Look at his face throughout the entire sequence. It is joy, the simple joy of being and feeling alive. It is common to yearn to recapture some of that childhood innocence. Robin Williams was one of the few people who seemed able to express it freely. In becoming Peter Pan again, he recaptures the essence of life. He re-learns how to have fun and not take everything so seriously. He becomes a kid again, in the best way possible. While Hook has its problems as a movie, Robin Williams’ performance is so charming that it cannot be anything less than enjoyable.

The movie teaches that finding the smile is finding the true self. Cool lesson.
The movie teaches that finding the smile is finding the true self. Cool lesson.

What makes make Hook perfect is that, while Robin Williams’ Pan embodies the wonder of life, Dustin Hoffman’s Captain Hook symbolizes the grim reality of death. He is a character obsessed with it throughout the film. Bitter and lonely, Hook embodies everything that Peter was becoming while he was astray. Hook has no friends, no family, no real zest for living. He simply wants to kill and die.

Watching Peter Pan defeat Hook is watching life triumph over death. Of course, the inevitably of dying is addressed, to which Williams responds with the great line: “to die would be a great adventure.” While Hook remains consumed with the destination, Peter remains free to appreciate the journey. The movie ends with a new celebration and appreciation for time spent alive.

"To live... to live will be an awfully big adventure."
“To live… to live will be an awfully big adventure.”

Robin Williams brought this same zest for life to every role he played. I think that is really how he delivered such an impact on so many people. It is easy, in this world, to get bogged down and lose sight of happiness. To have someone who so constantly reminded us of the simple wonder of smiling… he will be missed. There really are too few people who devote their lives to making other people, even complete strangers, happy. He is a role model who will never be forgotten. He lives on in his performances, where that essence of being alive continues to be expressed.


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