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Flight of the Navigator
(1986)

 

It’s easy to see why a remake of Flight of the Navigator is being mooted (although whether Colin Trevorrow remains attached will probably depend upon the success of Jurassic World). It has a strong premise, one it makes the most of for the first forty-or-so minutes. Unfortunately, no one has much idea what to do next. As a result, director Randal Kleiser settles on Paul Reubens’ verbal mugging to fill the back end.

I’m not sure if I’d actually seen Flight of the Navigator all the way through before. I certainly recall it’s release, and Bazza Norman reviewing it on Film ’87 (it came out within a few months of the also time travel-themed Star Trek The Voyage Home; back in the glorious days when UK releases were regularly six months-to-a-year behind the US). But I’d have been fourteen at the time, and traditional Disney fare was no longer in favour. I wanted to see Spock Vulcan grip a punk on a bus.

Maybe I wasn’t alone. Navigator came at an indeterminate juncture during Disney’s ’80s (financial) nadir and gradual rejuvenation. Touchstone had been established, and it was the salvation of a studio previously reluctant to release anything stronger than a U certificate. Suddenly, through reneging on Walt’s wholesome image (aside from the racism and fascism and anti-Semitism), the Mouse House was viable again. From Splash to Down and Out in Beverly Hills to Ruthless People, PG+ fare could be sold and not tainted (in either respect) by the Disney logo. Now, of course, Touchstone is virtually redundant, but back then it left the main studio in a curious limbo state.

The “dark” Disney period was a few years past in 1986. It had seen the studio stumbling to find an identity, with patchy but interesting, flawed but creative failures. These stretched from its twisted sister to Star WarsThe Black Hole, and on into The Watcher in the WoodsPopeyeTronSomething Wicked This Way Comes and Return to Oz. In tandem with this, the core animated features had all but dried up. The Black Cauldron was heavily edited for being too extreme for the kiddies, and it was only with The Great Mouse Detective, the same year as Navigator, that the tide was seen to begin to turn. Jump forward three years and it wasn’t only Disney animation that was in the grip of a fully-fledged rebirth. The Little Mermaid has introduced a new golden age, and Honey I Shrunk the Kids was the studio’s biggest (Disney brand) hit in a decade.

Flight of the Navigator doesn’t have the easy confidence of Joe Johnston’s hit, however (notably, its director Randal Kleiser went on to direct the inferior sequel Honey, I Blew Up the Kid). With its yellow titles (always a warning sign of something bargain-basement), beatific child protagonist and UFO trappings, Navigator hearkens back to the cheap-and-cheerful Disney pictures of the ‘70s such as the Witch Mountain films, Cat from Outer Space, and The Spaceman and King Arthur). But it didn’t start life as Disney picture at all. It was initially brought to the studio, which rejected it, and financed instead by Producer Sales Organisation. When PSO went into bankruptcy in ’86, Disney picked up the film and financed its completion.

In its early passages at least, Navigator is liable to surprise – like a good few Disneys of the preceding period – for what it lets by without comment. On July 4 1978, twelve-year-old David Scott Freeman (Joey Cramer, competent but forgettable) is sent to fetch his brother from the woods. At night.  David has a fall, awakes, and then returns home to discover his family are no longer there. He is taken to the police station, and thanks to some solid work from the boys in blue, reunited with them. Only they are now eight years older. It’s 1986, and David’s little brother is now his older brother.

It’s a great opening, although one wonders how the casual approach to themes of child abduction would play in a remake (edit: additional to which, one wonders if the designers would be so brazen as to include overt paedo symbolism, as found here on the steps of the alien spacecraft). It’s only that this abduction is at behest of a friendly alien spacecraft that softens the effect (albeit a spacecraft voiced by Paul Reubens, which definitely wouldn’t happen now, given the adverse publicity that has attached itself to the actor over the years). We aren’t talking Communion-type alien business, fortunately. Rather, screenwriters Michael Burton and Matt MacManus (from a story by Mark H Baker) effectively set up a Twilight Zone shift in reality. Perhaps this was an influence on a young Christopher Nolan; its emotional core is essentially that of Interstellar, only reversed.

It’s also arguably more successful at exploring the reverberations of lost time than Nolan’s film; David has no advance warning, nor the cushion of adulthood with which to process his experience. It’s wholly believable when he crumples and cries in his family home, now occupied by strangers, and it’s an effective rug pull for any viewer. Prior to this, Kleiser has humorously set the stage for alien intrusions. Those yellow titles playing out over footage of a sliver Frisbee competition. He repeats the trick several times; the shadow of a Good Year blimp passes by, as if the mothership is landing, and the dome of a tower pokes up expansively over some trees, before becoming clearly identifiable.

These give the impression Kleiser is more engaged than he is with the material. There’s little else to suggest a director with vision. In the previous decade he had made both Grease and The Blue Lagoon, but you wouldn’t get the impression from his filmography that he was the ambitious type. He subsequently directed Reubens again, in Big Top Pee-wee (another inferior sequel). He comes across as a director without much passion, so probably didn’t pay much attention to tone or consistency.

David’s bewilderment at his aged parents (too aged? It’s only eight years) is also convincing. Veronica Cartwright (already consigned to mum roles, when she’s wasn’t cherry-souping) actually looks a lot better in ’86 when she’s got rid of her horrendous ’70s perm. Dad Cliff de Young has taken a serious hit, however, prematurely grey and balding. This out-of-time, out-of-synch, leads to an interesting possibility at the climax. David, who just wanted to go home (it’s the weakness of the last thirty minutes that this is the best the writers could come up with) realises he has no home (“I’m sorry. I don’t belong here”), and returns to the spaceship and Max. For a moment, there’s a glimmer that the makers might take a brave leap (as in, modern Spielberg would never have a dad leave his young family), in which the kid goes off to explore the universe with his computer eyeball pal. After all, Gilliam didn’t don on kid gloves with the conclusion to Time Bandits.

No such luck, as the very dangerous manoeuvre (a cheat to enable the plot in the first place, but that’s forgivable) is a success, and David is returned in time to his point of departure, unscathed. Complete with cute, post-Lucas/Spielberg/Henson, homeless alien critter pal. This is a Disney movie, after all. It also makes it one, after setting itself up so intriguingly, that buries its potential under linear time travel thinking. It’s fairly certain that we’re not expected to conclude that there are two parallel timelines, one of which has a bereft Freeman family having lost their son twice (!). Rather, David’s return has rewritten the timeline (always the least satisfying option, as it creates an inevitable paradox).

Navigator is a consistent mishmash of the surprisingly effective and the cheesy or amateurish. Alan Silvestri had just scored big time with Back to the Future, and, at times – when he’s attempting to be atmospheric –, the score is perfectly serviceable. At others, it’s a nightmarish clatter of over-deliberate synths, struggling for domination (David’s escape in the NASA mailbot is especially ear-rattling). The picture’s culture shock approach has none of the charm of Back to the Future, or The Voyage Home. It’s as clumsy as one might expect from an out-of-touch studio. No kid who liked Twisted Sister (repeatedly referenced) would be seen dead watching one of their films. There’s also referencing of the nascent MTV and David rocking out to The Beach Boys. A young Sarah Jessica Parker, with purple hair, informs us of what the hip kids are listening to right now (more alarming is that she tells a twelve-year-old, “You know, you’re cute!”)

Kleiser grasps faintly for many of the same beats as those more successful culture shock movies, but he ends up closer to Herbie movie double takes than anything really witty. David parks his spaceship next to some “geeks” and asks the way to Fort Lauderdale. Fat Al (of Al’s Gator City) stands open mouthed at the silver craft sat at his petrol station, but the visiting tourist’s reaction is quite amusing (“Well, your Indian village won’t win any awards, but that flying saucer’s first rate”). There are movie references too, reminding us that other pictures with young protagonists have stolen Disney’s thunder, and been embraced (“He just said he wanted to phone home”). Even the previous year’s flop Explorers shows care, wit and craftsmanship out of reach of the frequently sloppy Navigator.

That’s a big part of the reason for its relative failure. Kids in 1985 wanted to see Indiana Jones or The Goonies. They don’t want to see the latest Disney picture. The brand was out in the cold, and they hadn’t caught up with the product. Science fiction trappings were popular, and as noted, Disney was in there first during the ’70s, before Spielberg and Lucas captivated the marketplace and pushed them out, but Navigator is playing catch up stylistically. The kid learning of potentially nefarious government goings-on doesn’t have the tension of, say War Games. NASA has a fairly low-tech warehouse with a robot containing child-sized compartments for easy escape. The government conspiracy aspect is there, post-Spielberg, but it feels half-hearted. Howard Hesseman, on the verge of success with Head of the Class, makes for the memorable government stooge Dr Faraday (geddit?) and David’s decision not to stay in 1986 is based on the assumption that NASA will never stop poking and prodding him, but there’s little that’s really sinister here.

Indeed, it’s a bit of a fizzle narrative-wise once the big reveals of David’s increased brain capacity have taken place. There are some interest ideas; he hears voices and encounters telepathy, and “He’s communicating with the computer in binary code”. When David is asked a question, his subconscious responds with intricate knowledge (when he was gone, he was “In analysis mode on Phaelon”). He didn’t time travel to 1986; rather, “time slows down when you approach the speed of light”.

Unfortunately, the momentum disperses once David is aboard the spaceship (a Trimaxion Drone Ship). The clamshell design is arresting and economical, and occasionally impressively integrated. There is some rudimentary CGI on display (the entrance portal and stairs), of the kind that would later be made pervasive by James Cameron. The interior is well conceived, and the eyeball/lens that is Max attains a character all its own.

The flight sequences are variable (over land, not so much, shooting twenty miles straight up, not at all bad). Kleiser and co appear to be picking up bits and pieces of UFO lore; “Max” is indeed abducting a variety of specimens, but not to do unspeakable things to their bottoms (“I have been sent from Phaelos to collect samples of life”). When Max lands in a field of cows (another odd moment, which consists of David taking a whizz), he doesn’t mutilate them; rather, he imitates their mooing.

The specimens are a cute collection (Max is very much restricted in terms of the size of his subjects), including one with a cold, one that eats David’s hat and belches, and the bat fella that David keeps (whose home planet was destroyed by a comet – aw, poor little guy!) Mainly, though, the second half is preoccupied with the antics of Reuben’s Max.

In some respects, this was a canny move. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was a surprise sleeper hit the year before, and a well-chosen voice part can pay huge dividends (Guardians of the Galaxy, er, Look Who’s Talking). When Reubens is voicing the uncontaminated Max there’s a restraint and dry cleverness, and a memorable catchphrase (“Compliance!”) Once he has read David’s mind, though, the problem isn’t that it’s Reubens improvising to the max, Max, it’s that he is, basically, Pee-wee. Complete with Pee-wee laugh and insaniac man-child voice. Reubens could clearly do interesting voice work –as the pure, unsullied Max proves – so it’s a shame he resorts to the crowdpleaser. At no point do we hear Max gone crazy. We hear Pee-wee under full steam, and it’s a misjudgement. Reuben’s needed to be held in check, or given some character notes beyond Pee-wee in Space.

The reason for Max needing David at all is a fairly convoluted backpedalling, and doesn’t bear close analysis. Max tested this inferior (human) species by filling up the ninety percent of its unused brain with star charts. Then Max had an accident that erased his star charts, so he needed to get a download from David. There ought to have been some other objective, besides David getting home (and his brother lighting fireworks – those same fireworks from 1978! – to attract the spaceship to land).

Flight of the Navigator was part of a dying breed of Disney movies, then. Young protagonists would either be cruder and less innocent/more wised up (The Goonies) or they’d be well into teenhood (The Last StarfighterLabyrinth). More importantly, directors in touch with their inner child would envisage them, in contrast to the dated formula packages Disney found itself unable to move beyond. Navigator is halfway between the two. It has half of a good script, and it has half an eye on the up-and-coming (new special effects techniques, Reubens). But it botches the execution as much as it succeeds, stymied by sloppy pop culture references and a simpering child lead.

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