Released in 1986, Flight of the Navigator is one of those movies I watched again and again as a kid. Then, for probably twenty years or so, I forgot about it, largely because it wasn’t on DVD. But I recently revisited it—and I realized it’s a much, much different movie than I remember.
Directed by Randal Kleiser (Grease, Big Top Pee-Wee, The Blue Lagoon), Flight of the Navigator was one of Disney’s big summer releases in 1986. It didn’t do particularly well financially (the #48 movie of the year according to Box Office Mojo), but was quite well-reviewed, still sitting at over 80% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. That means it’s one of those movies that caught the imaginations of kids, once it hit the rising home video market.
The story is about a boy named David (Joey Cramer) who, in 1978, goes out into the woods, gets hurt, and wakes up eight years later, without having aged a day. Turns out, he was abducted by aliens and taken to their planet for tests. Everyone then tries to piece together the circumstances around his mysterious disappearance, while the alien craft that took David also looks for him because the alien need his help to get home.
Watching Flight of the Navigator now, almost thirty years after its release, the first thing that rings through is just how dated it is. Not in a bad way, but its age is incredibly noticeable. Everything from Alan Silvestri’s synth-heavy score to the yellow-font opening credits and Transformers and G.I Joe toys put the film in a specific time and place. There’s also the gratuitous use of the word “retarded,” a Slip-N-Slide and kids playing with fireworks. Very Eighties.
All that is trumped though by the voice of Max the alien, which is done by none other than Paul Reubens. As Max and David become better and better friends, Max goes from straightforward and robotic dialogue to 100% Pee-Wee Herman. By the end of the movie, you could have retitled it “Pee Wee is an Alien.” In 1986, that was probably novel, but now it actually feels a little grating.
That said, the movie feels kind of ballsy. It runs only 90 minutes but we don’t get to the spaceship stuff for over half the movie. Most of the narrative drive comes from this mystery of how did a young boy disappear for eight years without any time seeming to pass for him? Plus, that’s handled in a kind of scary way for a Disney movie. Scenes of David going into his former house and crying, seeing and being frightened by his aged parents, or meeting his younger, but now older, brother, come with some very complex emotions and questions, especially for younger kids. If we’re being honest, it’s kind of a mind fuck.
The mystery keeps the movie afloat though and, slowly, the awesome spaceship gets set up. Sarah Jessica Parker shows up, there’s a lot of NASA product placement and by the time you finally get to David’s “Flight of the Navigator,” the film has more than earned its big musical interludes and flying montages. This scene, in particular, is just the best.
Honestly, you couldn’t watch that scene under the age of 15, and not want to pump some Beach Boys and fly a ship across the mountains. It’s infectious—and because you know how much stuff this kid has gone through, his innocence in these scenes is a welcome relief.
Along the way there’s some great effects work, terrific creature work, and an ultra-trippy climax, leading to the requisite Disney ending. But still, for a tight little Disney movie, Flight of the Navigator is super fun and ahead of its time. It’s basically an alien abduction movie for kids. Fire in the Sky turned into a rousing adventure. The X-Files via Mickey Mouse. Not all of it holds up under a microscope, but it’s very much a window into its time. A window that’s still well worth opening.
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