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.


The Wisdom to be Learned from Uncle Iroh (Avatar: the Last Airbender)

There is question to ask at the beginning of this that I feel is legitimate: can one learn anything from fiction? Fiction, by its definition, is not real, ergo how could it apply to real life? Short answer: yes. There is a whole article that I could write on the history of storytelling and the evolution of the fable… but that’s not the point of this article. To paraphrase a line from Tropic Thunder (I’m so cool, I know): “just because it’s made up doesn’t make it not true.”

With that in mind, let’s turn to Avatar: the Last Airbender. I could (and maybe will) write an article on every main character from this show, but let us instead just focus on Iroh (more commonly known as Uncle Iroh). First, a quick rundown of what Avatar: the Last Airbender is about – an ancient world (Eastern themed) where people control, and fight with, the elements. Iroh hails from the Fire Nation (the antagonists of the series). Despite this origin, he is not a bad guy, in truth he is the morale heart of the show. Iroh is the oldest main character that the audience follows. He was a general of the Fire Nation but retired after the loss of his son (killed in action). Iroh is the uncle of Zuko (the series’ first antagonist), hence the “uncle” association. How could a guy on the “evil side” be so good? Let’s discuss his character.

Iroh is like a father to Zuko. Zuko is actually the prince of his nation, but was banished (and scarred) for speaking out against his father. Zuko’s father… kind of a dick. Anyway, Iroh is Zuko’s role model, although it is against Zuko’s wishes. At the start of the series, the Fire Nation Prince reflects the spoiled nature of a teenager, and fluctuates between listening to and rebelling against his uncle’s advice.

Here is where the strength of Iroh’s character starts, with what might be his greatest virtue: his patience. Iroh does not have it easy in this show. In short: there is no one who treats him worse than Zuko. Hold on, you say, isn’t Iroh supposed to be a father to the prince? He is, but Zuko, as a character, is very confused (only slightly more decisive than Hamlet). Zuko is from a screwed up family. His sister is psychotic and so is his father. His mother… is gone. That leaves Iroh, and Iroh knows and, more importantly, understands the implications of this.

Iroh is an excellent role model because the writing for the show allows for real world situations to take place. In his relationship with Zuko, there are few moments where the prince acknowledges what an incredible influence his uncle is being. More than that, most of Iroh’s misfortune comes from Zuko’s actions. Yet Iroh is there for him, no matter what. It is the importance of family and of being there for the people who matter.

Iroh can be interpreted as many things. He is a man who sees beauty in the simplest aspects of life (especially tea). He is a man who values his family. He is a man with conscious who understands the weight of his actions. He is a father who lost his son. The audience never knows anything about Iroh’s wife (kinda strange now that I think about it) but when one understands that he lost his child: Iroh’s motivations become clearer and take on a more tragic light.

In watching the show, Iroh is a great man, but what makes him believable is his journey. He didn’t start out as a mystical Buddha with life figured out. He was broken, he lost the thing that mattered most to him, and it defined him. The good news, and I believe the lesson, of this is that Iroh had it define him in the best way. He could have been bitter and angry but he instead chose to live the remainder of his life to the fullest, in an attempt to avoid the mistakes and regrets from his earlier life.

I love Avatar: the Last Airbender because it is an excellent, albeit fantastical, look at humanity. Every character in that show is worth watching, but if one wishes to see the wonder and love in all things: look no further than Uncle Iroh (plus herbal teas are amazing, just saying).

Quote from the show. Corny words can still be true words.
Quote from the show. Corny words can still be true words.