There once existed a period where Disney’s live action theatrical output needed to shoulder the weight of the quality loss their animated efforts were producing at the time. Throughout the late ‘70s and much of the ‘80s, films such as 1985’s The Black Cauldron failed to capture the magic, and the box office, that existed in the time before as well as throughout the eventual Disney Renaissance of the early ‘90s, and it was up to films such as The Rocketeer, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and 1986’s Flight of the Navigator to keep things somewhat afloat, in addition to offering a moviegoing alternative in the vein of early classics Mary Poppins, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or even The Absent-Minded Professor. It didn’t hurt that, with nearly every release, Disney continued to establish itself as a true motion picture powerhouse with a library of live action epics that stood on their own feat as genuinely good, what with the studios existing reputation as an animation juggernaut and theme park empire.
Flight of the Navigator was released in August of 1986, went on to garner a small profit in box office receipts and met with a slew of positive feedback, paving the way for eventual status as a cult classic amongst the now-adult children of the era. This original story focused on David Freeman (Joey Cramer), a 12-year old Floridian with a typical family overseen by parents Bill (Cliff DeYoung) & Helen (Veronica Cartwright) and life revolving around girls, his dog and an characteristically annoying brother, Jeff (Matt Adler). When tasked with retrieving his brother from a neighbor’s house one evening, David accidentally falls into a ravine, whereupon regaining consciousness learns, much to his horror, that eight years have passed and that his family have not only relocated, but have been tirelessly searching for him since. As David struggles to make sense of the situation and attempt to adjust his 1978 mind to the strange new world of 1986, another situation unfolds not far away when a mysterious spacecraft crashes into a power line, where it’s quickly seized by NASA and, not coincidentally, tests being undergone on David in an effort to find out what happened to him reveal the image of a spacecraft embedded within his mind, identical to the one now in NASA’s capture. Putting two and two together, David is then taken in by Dr. Faraday (Howard Hesseman), a NASA official overseeing the events who believes he can not only help David uncover the truth but also find some answers of his own, while at the same time David has been hearing an unknown voice beckoning him to a warehouse on NASA’s campus. Now knowing the phenomena are connected, it is here that David finally encounters the ship, makes his way on board and meets the ship’s captain, the robotic Trimaxion (voiced by Paul Reubens), whom David nicknames Max. It is here that the second half of the movie-and a unique adventure-truly begin.
Although I recall renting Flight of the Navigator from time to time from whichever video rental establishment was close by, it was always that movie that just so happened to be on TV every periodic lazy Saturday whenever I needed a few minutes to sit and possibly enjoy some Golden Grahams. Every time it started to escape my memories, I’d seemingly rediscover it all over again, as if by accident, in the process realizing how much I enjoyed it and how it undeniably had become a touchstone part of my years growing up.
This all said, there’s no denying that the overall tone of the film, especially much of the first act, is actually somewhat dark, almost sinister at times. This is largely due in no small part to score composer Alan Silvestri, who sheds the bombast he brought to his work on Back to the Future a year earlier and instead opts for a synthesizer-driven soundtrack that, while full of soaring optimism that manifests when David finally boards the craft and meets Max, is honestly eerie during the scenes that come before. David’s ill-fated walk through the woods that leads to his missing time has the feel of every great scary movie, while later scenes of the ship’s discovery and subsequent attempts to telepathically communicate with David possess a signature theme with undercurrents of promise hidden beneath music that wouldn’t feel out of place were it the work of, say, Hans Zimmer. There’s even some large percussive strikes that could be described as Zimmer-esque to further emphasize the unease, but when David takes control of the ship later in the film does Silvestri let loose with some heroic music that pops up periodically in various forms, essentially becoming the signature motif of the film and setting up a wonderful ending. On a side note, Flight of the Navigator may have been the first time I ever heard The Beach Boys. Do with that information what you will.
The entire cast gives 100%, with Joey Cramer at the forefront as the kid out of time David. The shift from average pre-teen at the beginning to the confusion one would undoubtedly feel were they faced with a dilemma even remotely close to what happened to him is entirely believable, with genuine emotion and a strange feeling of the excitement yet to come overshadowing these pivotal scenes. When David and Max finally meet, Cramer’s ability to show David making sense of it all leads the way to his confidence as he eventually takes control of the ship, becoming the titular Navigator, all the while effortlessly flexing on a dime with a performance that truly makes one believe that this is what a child would go through were they placed in the same state of affairs. Meanwhile, Paul Reubens as Max is perfect comic foil for Cramer, beginning his own journey with a typically robotic performance but eventually undergoing a personality shift which leaves him imbibed with a persona that couldn’t be more like Pee-Wee if it tried. The chemistry between the two is the genuine article, and Reubens delivers what might very be one of his better characters that not only allows for some admittedly funny moments during the film’s second act but paving the way for Reubens to dial it back again near the conclusion.
Flight of the Navigator’s supporting roles are handled aptly by DeYoung and Cartwright as David’s parents, showcasing real distress, relief and anxiety simultaneously over their son’s disappearance, discovery & questionable loss of time, while Howard Hesseman is an acceptable villain, even though he’s hardly threatening and seems more concerned with getting to the bottom of David’s predicament. Even Sarah Jessica Parker’s here as a NASA intern who befriends David and helps him with his situation-she may have been granted a scant amount of cumulative screentime, but is a perfect example of someone making the most of it and even getting some excellent, convincing interaction with David. Much credit can be given to director Randal Keiser, who does load the film with admittedly dated special effects, some which work better than others, but knows how to craft a well-balanced pace and fully command his cast.
Decades after its release, Flight of the Navigator still manages to grab the imagination and take full advantage of a story that’s not a remake, reboot or sequel-even in the mid-‘80s, big screen adaptations of existing properties were beginning to run rampant, and franchises such as James Bond & Star Wars were already well underway with multiple entries and an indicator of what was eventually to come from the depths of Hollywood. This is a fine, memorable film with picture perfect casting, music, and an enduring overall look that erupts from the best parts of the 1980s-truly, they don’t make adventures like this anymore, with the capability to bring about genuine dread but still lift audiences up as the film goes on. It’s something similar efforts like The Goonies, E.T., Little Monsters and even Unsolved Mysteries similarly pulled off well, a product of its time that still manages to feel timeless. As I look back on my youth once again, Flight of the Navigator is one movie I’ll always appreciate.