(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)
Before Disney was known for its corporate synergy and obsession with remaking old animated classics, they actually took a lot of bold chances, especially in the ’70s and ’80s. And especially when it came to sci-fi, fantasy and horror films. Sadly, few of these were successful at the box office, though some managed to become cult hits once they hit home video. One such film is Flight of the Navigator.
One of many films about kids befriending alien beings that arrived in the wake of E.T., Flight of the Navigator is a rare Disney film that knows when to take its sweet time and build up character and atmosphere. It also explores a relatively dark and, frankly, messed-up story, all before evolving into the whimsical sci-fi adventure film the title and poster promise.
So let’s go back to the ’80s and explore the tale of a kid who befriended a sentient spaceship.
The brainchild of a small Norwegian film company called Viking Film, and genre film production company Producers Sales Organization, Flight of the Navigator is technically not a Disney production, as PSO approached Disney to buy the distribution rights for the film’s North American release. The film follows a 12-year-old Florida boy named David who goes missing in 1978, and reappears eight years later. He hasn’t aged a day, and thinks he’s only been gone a few hours. Of course, NASA scientists are thrilled because they think he is connected to the shiny and reflective UFO that just crash-landed nearby.
The film is directed by one Randal Kleiser, who you might recognize as the man behind Grease, The Blue Lagoon, and Honey, I Blew Up the Kid. According to Kleiser, he always wanted to do a sci-fi movie, despite having no experience with the genre. And here’s some fun trivia: Flight of the Navigator is initially set in 1978, the year Grease came out, and you can year “You’re The One That I Want” playing on the radio as the family drives around early in the film.
Though perhaps not as revolutionary as Tron a couple of years earlier, Flight of the Navigator still features some impressive early CGI when it came to the spaceship. The director’s brother, Jeff Kleiser, was in charge of creating the ship, which he decided should be chrome, always reflecting the environment around the ship.
The most interesting thing about watching this film in 2021 is how little it actually feels like E.T., despite the poster and general premise suggesting otherwise. In truth, it’s the reverse of Steven Spielberg’s film: the alien is trying to help the young boy get home. Hoewver, it’s everything that comes before that part of the film that makes this fascinating and unlike most of its contemporaries.
Though the film’s runtime is just a brisk 90 minutes, we don’t really get to the spaceship stuff until over halfway through the story. Instead, most of it is devoted to the mystery of what happened to this young boy, who disappeared for eight years and came back without aging a day. And rather than making it a funny fish-out-of-water story that just focuses on all the different pop culture — though we do get some of it, like the kid being shocked over the existence of MTV — Flight of the Navigator treats its story with a kind of seriousness and somberness you’d find in The Leftovers, not a Disney film.
Note the scene where David going back to his former house and finding strangers inside, while the camera closes in on his shock as we see him scared and crying. And then there’s David meeting his now-older parents and his younger brother, who is now older than him. These scenes are treated with emotional gravitas and complexity, without jokes or interruptions. There’s a scene where David’s brother tells him how his parents made him put up “Missing” posters of his brother all over the city every Saturday for years after he disappeared, and how he’s always blamed himself because he pulled a prank on David before he vanished. Even the moments where David is confronted with pop culture he’s not familiar with, and hearing that his favorite show, Starsky & Hutch was canceled, isn’t done for laughs. It’s treated as a serious thing. David did not run away from home, he’s not an orphan, or even a kid with a destiny. He’s just an average boy who finds himself in a terrifying situation.
Unlike E.T., which clearly paints the government in a bad light, Flight of the Navigator doesn’t have a traditional villain. Sure, there’s the NASA scientists who are would rather keep David for a few more days rather than fulfill their promise to his dad and drive him home. But the film never treats them as anything but reasonable scientists who are genuinely concerned about David’s wellbeing…and the fact that his head is now filled with random alien maps and graphics. They want answers, but they are not about to put the kid in harm’s way or experiment on him. They are just as scared as David is.
So when David stumbles upon the alien spaceship and its sentient computer starts speaking like Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens voices the computer), it’s a miracle the film doesn’t collapse under its own weight. This is the whimsical and uplifting sci-fi adventure film you’d expect Flight of the Navigator to be, and it genuinely works. It helps because we spend so much time with David feeling like an alien in his hometown, so when he finds an actual alien who doesn’t treat him any differently, of course he opens up and becomes friends with it. It helps that the spaceship itself holds up as a set after so many years. The interior design is entirely chrome, a distinct look from other movie spaceships, and the practical-yet-alien aesthetic of the ship makes it somehow feel more real.
Like most of Disney’s live-action genre movies of the late ’70s and ’80s, Flight of the Navigator wasn’t a hit. It certainly didn’t help that it came out the same weekend as Howard the Duck and Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, and at a time when Aliens was obliterating the box office.
Despite less than stellar box office earnings, there have been talks of a remake since 2009. In 2012 it was reported that Colin Trevorrow would rewrite the script and possibly direct. In 2017 it was announced that Lionsgate (who owns the Producers Sales Organization library) and The Henson Company, rather than Disney, were producing a reboot with Lucifer showrunner Joe Henderson writing the script. Now that Disney is fully in remake mode, why not give Flight of the Navigator another shot?
In the meantime, you can watch this film on Disney+ and decide for yourself if a remake is even necessary.
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