Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, Julia Roberts | Directed by Steven Spielberg

Rolling Stone

Playing a seven-inch Tinkerbell with pixie wings and pointy ears, Julia Roberts reminds the grown Peter Pan (Robin Williams) that the trick to flying is thinking happy thoughts. You get the feeling that the high-priced talents involved in Hook, including Dustin Hoffman in the villainous title role, are thinking profit participation. In updating Peter Pan for the Nineties, Steven Spielberg front-loads this $80 million epic with big stars, big sets and really big special effects (even Captain Hook's croc nemesis is humongous). The film has been engineered for merchandising potential and the widest possible appeal – note the conspicuously multiethnic Lost Boys. What's missing is the one thing that really counts: charm.

Spielberg triumphed with E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind because he gave the characters in those classic fantasies room to insinuate themselves. In Hook he takes an insistent tone more appropriate to an Indiana Jones adventure than to the J.M. Barrie fable about the fear of growing up. You leave Hook feeling mauled, which may be dandy for those who see movies as the next best thing to theme parks. Though the film occasionally hints that the story is a Freudian hallucination, those moments merely suggest the witty spectacle that might have been if Spielberg had guarded his vision as diligently as his investment.

Peter Banning (Williams) is a workaholic with a trendily dysfunctional family. His wife, Moira (Caroline Goodall), and children – eleven-year-old Jack (Charlie Korsmo) and seven-year-old Maggie (Amber Scott) – take a back seat to his real-estate deals. Peter would rather cuddle his phone than his kids. Resentful Jack draws a plane crashing, providing parachutes for everyone but his father.

"Peter, you've become a pirate," says Granny Wendy (Maggie Smith, luminous even behind layers of old-age makeup) when Peter and family visit her in London. The past is a blank for Peter; he has forgotten that when he was twelve, he decided to stay with Wendy, who then placed him with American parents. He doesn't know that he's the Pan whom Barrie had immortalized and Wendy had loved. Wendy tells him the truth after Hook kidnaps Jack and Maggie from Wendy's house. With Tink sprinkling the pixie dust, Peter flies to Neverland to find his kids, defeat Hook and recover the child within himself.

Williams is a hoot – though out of character – when he leers at Tink ("You're a teeny thing, lovely legs though") and disses the Lost Boys ("What's this, a Lord of the Flies preschool?"). But Spielberg keeps crowding him into sentimental corners. He's another selfish yuppie who learns to care. You could have titled his story Regarding Peter.

Hoffman dodges the weepie trap, but then he has his own writer (it's the latest in star perks). Not content with the James V. Hart script, he brought in Ma-lia Scotch Marmo (Once Around) to develop the Hook character. Sporting a British accent and a Bill Buckley hauteur, Hoffman's Hook plots the "ultimate revenge" – making Peter's kids love him as a father. Aided by his first mate, Smee (Bob Hoskins), Hook organizes baseball games and other activities for Jack. Little Maggie, like all the women in the film, is introduced only to be ignored. Though Roberts does her best playing a flickering special effect, she's given so little to do that she could be accused of loitering.

Meanwhile, Williams dons Mary Martin drag and flies around Neverland trying to recapture his lost youth. It's a lovely sequence, expertly shot by Dean Cundey (Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Showing the allure of Neverland to stressed-out adults should be a natural for Spielberg. Instead, he buries the conflict between freedom and responsibility in the clutter of food fights and clanking duels. Maybe Spielberg thought he had to justify the expense of the Neverland set and Hook's warship. With John Williams's score as relentless backup, Spielberg delivers action but no momentum. What's exciting at first grows numbing with repetition.

At the climax, Spielberg tries to regain his footing with tear-jerking tactics, especially the gratuitous murder of a child. When Tink tells Peter he'll always be in her heart, "in that place between asleep and awake," it's Spielberg's wishful thinking. No matter how much cash Hook earns, it will take more than pixie dust to fly this overstuffed package into our dreams