1986 in Film – Flight of The Navigator

Release Date: Jul 30th
Box Office: $18,564,613

When E.T. (1982) was released it created a whole flood of imitators that latched on to that core concept of the film; that of the lonely boy meeting up with another outsider and going on an adventure. That outsider being, of course, an alien or robot or sentient dirt bike.

The family adventure film proliferated everywhere, aided by the growing direct to video market. The only real surprise is that it took Disney so long to follow this trend with Flight of The Navigator (1986).

Live action Disney films are their own weird little genre going back to the fifties with Treasure Island (1950) which was the first in a long line of films. After Walt Disney’s death and the money began to drain away from the animation studio, it seemed to be the live action films that supported their movie output. By the 80s there was a period of experimentation that didn’t see much return: The Black Hole (1979), Popeye (1980), Dragonslayer (1981) and Tron (1982) might be fondly remembered now but none of them were the box office hit they were expected to be.

That might be a bit harsh on Tron considering it was released in the wake of E.T. which was well on it’s way to becoming the highest grossing film of all time up to that point. The film was so big it distorted everything around it so much that most films were overwhelmed by it, just ask John Carpenter.

The weird thing though is that E.T. has all the hallmarks of a live action Disney film; most of them had some kind of high concept (mother and daughter swapping bodies, a car that is alive, a monkey who can pick successful TV programs) so a boy finding a lost alien would be right in their wheelhouse.

Flight of The Navigator follows this basic plot with a few more wrinkles: in 1978 12 year old David Freeman goes to collect his annoying little brother and falls down into a small ravine and knocked out. When he wakes up he finds that it is now 1986 and everyone around him has aged whilst he is still a young boy. At the same time a NASA scientist discovers an alien craft that has crash landed. And, wouldn’t you know it, the two incidents may very well be connected as David’s head is full of star maps that the ship needs to get back home.

It’s a pretty simple setup for the typical “kid who wants to grow up actually does and realises that being a kid isn’t actually all that bad” plot that a lot of these films employed. And it is a decent little story, the scene where David first discovers wha has happened being well handled.

The alien ship, dubbed Max by David, is a weird one. From the outside it’s a silver teardrop thing made from some early but decent CGI. Inside he communicates from this head on a pole thing with a voice supplied by Paul Rubens. Yes, Pee Wee Herman Paul Rubens.

Clearly they’ve tried to hide this as on the cast list he’s credited as ‘Paul Mall’, and initially he uses a much straighter voice. Once he reads David’s mind to get the maps loads of pop culture stuff leaks into it which sends Max a bit loopy and, yep, there’s the Pee Wee Herman influence popping up.

So you have a kid flying around with an alien spacecraft that has a wall full of little alien puppets (including a freaky giant eyeball) on the run from NASA and the government. Should be fun right?

Nope. It’s a bit dull, which is a shame. Disney’s precious forays into sci-if with The Black Hole and Tron may not have been financially that successful but both were at least interesting films. With Navigator you get a fairly by the numbers story done without that much excitement. It feels like it takes about half the film before the ship and the kid are together then their adventure boils down to following the freeway till he gets home.

Thinking back to when I saw this at the time, the best bit was when David went into his room at the NASA lab and he had some cool Transformers on his bed. Oh, and said Lan has a robot helper because that’s what you did in 80s films.

This film comes at something of a low point for Disney. Three years later The Little Mermaid (1989) would come along and kick off the Disney Renaissance and in less than ten years Pixar would fundamentally change the game. In live action films, Disney had already setup Touchstone Pictures to move into more grown up fare aimed at the summer blockbuster market.

Navigator ends up being a footnote. The director previously did Grease (1978) which was a huge cultural smash. The main actor ended up being the archetypal young actor gone bad. It’s a film that, despite the bit of charm it has, usually ends up on lists of forgotten movies from people’s childhood.

Like this one.

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