Disney Live Action Spotlight: Flight of the Navigator

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All this month I’m spotlighting Disney live action films. This week’s selection is an underrated gem from 1986. It’s called Flight of the Navigator. The film boasts not only impressive special effects, but a fascinating science fiction story.

To get you up to speed, here’s the plot in a nutshell:

The year is 1978: 12-year-old David Freeman (Joey Cramer), playing in the woods near his home, is knocked unconscious. He awakens and heads home, only to find strangers living there. He also finds that the year is 1986, and that he’s been officially missing for eight years. NASA officials determine that David was abducted by aliens during his blackout, and hope to scan the boy’s brain in order to unlock a few secrets of the universe. Answering the call of a strange, unseen force, David boards a well-hidden spaceship and takes off, guided by the jocular voice of a computer named MAX (voiced by none other than Paul Reubens, aka Pee-Wee Herman). Realizing that he can’t fit in to 1986 so long as he’s a child of the ’70s, David hopes to retrace the steps of his alien abductors and get back to his own time.–Fandango

While some of this sounds like The X-Files for kids, it’s not just a low-rent alien movie. Anchored by Joey Cramer’s solid performance as David, Flight of the Navigator is an endlessly imaginative film. The story keeps you guessing. Remember when we used to have smart screenplays and kids movies weren’t just about mindless action? Those were good times. But I digress.

Aside from the solid cast and smart writing, the real star of Flight of the Navigator is the spaceship itself. the production design by William J. Creber, art direction by Michael Novotny, and set decoration by Scott Jacobson is a wonder to behold. It’s, if you’ll pardon the pun, out of this world. What the film does well that films today fail to do is that the sets and effects enhance the story without¬† overshadowing it. They provide a sense of wonder that makes the film that much more absorbing of an experience.

But enough about the effects. They’re great to look at, but not the whole reason to see Flight of the Navigator. There’s the fact that the spaceship’s computer is voiced by Paul Reubens of Pee-Wee Herman fame, the fun of watching David unravel the mystery of his blackout, the excitement of space exploration once David gets back on the spaceship, the revelation of David’s connection to the spaceship,and watching all the NASA scientists try to solve the mystery behind David’s erratic brain activity after his disappearance.

Flight of the Navigator has some neat robots and other science fiction special effects. But it’s also an intriguing mystery. The film is enjoyable for both kids and adults. While some of the effects may seem dated, it’s still a lot of fun. The film isn’t going to be mistaken for Star Wars anytime soon. But it’s a good introduction to science fiction/adventure films for kids. It’s one piece of film nostalgia from the 1980s that I’m happy to revisit. Even if science fiction isn’t typically your cup of tea, I bet you’ll find something to like about Flight of the Navigator. It’s one of Disney’s best kept live action film secrets.

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