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Should I Watch..? Flight Of The Navigator
What's the big deal?
Flight Of The Navigator is a family sci-fi film released in 1986 and is one of the most fondly remembered Disney films of the 80's. Directed by Randal Kleiser, the film follows a twelve-year-old boy named David who has been abducted by an alien craft and wakes up eight years later, having not aged a day. It was the only notable role in the career of child actor Joey Cramer who plays David and it also features a early role for Sarah Jessica Parker. The film was released to positive reviews with most critics praising the visual effects and Cramer's performance. The film later went on to become a cult classic, possibly due to the above but also because the film is very atypical of Disney's back catalogue, being neither fairy-tale or an adapted story.
What's it about?
The film opens on July 4th, 1978 where twelve-year-old David Freeman is escorting his antagonistic younger brother Jeff through some woods back home. Predictably, Jeff runs off and whilst giving chase, David falls into a small ravine and is knocked out. When he comes to, he goes home to find his family have moved way and his house occupied by strangers. When the police are called, they discover that David was filed as missing eight years ago by his family who have since moved away and aged considerably. He also discovers that the year is 1986.
The story reaches scientists based at NASA after tests on David reveal a vast amount of untelligable information as well as the design for what looks like a UFO stored unconsciously in his mind. Dr Louis Faraday becomes concerned when they discover that the alien craft stored in David's brain matches exactly with a crashed alien vessel that they've been studying without success. Is there a connection and does it explain what happened to David and where he has been?
Paul Reubens *
Jeff Freeman, aged 16
Sarah Jessica Parker
Dr Louis Faraday
Michael Burton & Matt McManus *
Release Date (UK)
10th April, 1987
Adventure, Family, Sci-Fi
What's to like?
Flight Of The Navigator is possibly one of the most under-rated live-action movies Disney ever produced. The story is well written and thought-out for once, the effects and sets are astonishing and the acting is of a very high standard. Even before the ship features in the film, we care for these normal everyday people because they feel like a genuine family thanks to Cartwright, Kramer, DeYoung, Adler and Albie Whitaker as the eight-year-old Jeff. They feed off each other and within moments, we like them and want the best for them. The heart-breaking nature of the story offers up a genuinely thrilling mystery at its core, one where you can't tell what will happen next.
Crucially, the movie also avoids talking down to children. You don't feel like you're watching a family film when its running because you (as an adult) are interested in it as well. Naturally, the film does take a comedic twist when Max (the ship's on-board robot) learns about emotions and Reubens is allowed to go full-on Pee-Wee Herman. It's amazing how ahead of its time this film was - Max is eerily similar in appearance to Auto, the robotic computer-eye on the Axiom in WALL·E while the effects of the ship as it sails over the ocean and our planet still impress after all these years. I also enjoyed the interior of the space-craft with its highly polished metallic surfaces and alien design. It gives the impression that a lot of thought and imagination went into the production, which is a lot more than can be said for most family films.
- Director Kleiser threw in a couple of references to his past projects. The car's radio plays the song You're The One That I Want from Grease near the beginning of the film while David, at one point, asks when Starsky & Hutch is broadcast. Kleiser worked on both projects.
- This was only the second film released under the Disney banner to include profanity. The first was 1985's The Journey Of Natty Gann.
- Originally, the film was an independent production but the company collapsed midway through the film's shoot. Disney bought the rights to this and several others in a liquidation sale and then paid for the film's completion.
What's not to like?
Alas, the film does run out of steam once David meets Max. You can almost see the exact moment when Disney took over production when SJP introduces her character and her robotic assistant RALF, rolling in like a disused Doctor Who prop. Even children are going to doubt that NASA would use such crude technology, especially if it has an acronymic name. The film's pace also feels quite slow compared to the frenetic speed that family films seem to operate at these days. Having said that, I felt the ending was a bit too convenient and lacked any real sense of tension. I also suspect that if I were a twelve-year-old kid with his own personal alien spaceship, I'd like to see more of the universe than David does. I'd certainly ask if it came with any laser cannons, at the very least!
Due to being firmly set in the 80's, the film has understandably dated somewhat and some of the effects could use a digital touch-up but generally speaking, Flight Of The Navigator would make a surprising and welcome addition to any family's list of movies for everyone to enjoy. It's so good that I'm surprised Disney didn't attempt to replicate it instead of churning out endless films about children discovering secret powers or cute animals saving the day.
Should I watch it?
Younger children might need a bit of persuading to see it to the end, seeing as there's no action to speak of but Flight Of The Navigator is a film of rare class. Its inventive and well-written screenplay offers a tantalising mystery and Kramer's brilliant performance at the heart of the film lifts it way beyond the reach of dozens of other live-action Disney pictures I could mention. It thoroughly deserves to be remembered as fondly as it is and I have no hesitation in recommending it.
Great For: the whole family, sci-fi geeks, 80's theme nights
Not So Great For: people paranoid about alien abduction, short attention spans
What else should I watch?
The only other live-action Disney films I enjoyed as much are The Love Bug and the perennial festive favourite and part-animated Mary Poppins. Both offer fun the whole family can enjoy although don't be surprised if kids enjoy them more than you do. Mary Poppins has the additional nostalgic factor for grown-ups to enjoy as well and if you're not singing at least one of the songs then you had a truly deprived childhood.
Today, Disney can only seem to get it right when they work together with Pixar whose enviable success makes them the true masters of modern animation. Gems like Toy Story, The Incredibles, WALL·E and Inside Out are all fantastic films and best of all, not a single one of those films has the song Let It Go from Frozen anywhere so if you aren't sick of singing the damn song, check out any of those..
© 2015 Benjamin Cox