Why ‘Flight of the Navigator’ Speaks to the Little Kid in All of Us

The '86 charmer has a split personality, but that doesn't dampen its sense of wonder

Randal Kleiser’s “Flight of the Navigator” opens with one of the great 1980s music montages.

We don’t simply get a UFO whirling around Florida but a flying saucer in question that winds up being a frisbee. We then see dozens of dogs, in mid-air, as they leap to their feet and catch an entourage of frisbees in slow motion.

Turns out, there used to be a Frisbee throwing dog catching contest in Florida in the 1970s (I looked it up). We watch as multiple mutts strive to catch the plastic orbs in slow motion. It’s set to Alan Silvestri’s rousing synthesizer theme and one of the goofiest and enthralling opening credit montages of its decade.

Trailer for Disney's 1986 sci-fi hit Flight of the Navigator - Daily Mail

The story that develops involves David (Joey Cramer), a young boy who leaves his home one night on a walk into the woods. When he returns, years have passed but he hasn’t aged, and his home is now inhabited by an odd geriatric couple (it’s a seriously creepy scene).

When police intervene and reconnect David to his family, who has now moved away, it’s a haunting sight, as you can see the years of David’s disappearance have taken a physical and mental toll on them.

NASA scientists offer to monitor David for a few days and he and his family submit to the tests. What happened to David, was he abducted by a UFO and why hasn’t he aged? Also, why is there a UFO that allows NASA scientists to haul it into the back of their truck?

“Flight of the Navigator” is essentially two movies – one is the eerie sci-fi thriller of the first and most of the second half, while the rest is a robust children’s film about a boy who gets his very own spaceship. I have always enjoyed this movie and continue to, but I’d argue that the first half is stronger and more compelling, while the second half is enjoyable but silly.

A setting right out of “The Twilight Zone” gradually settles into being a Saturday morning cartoon. That’s fine, and it’s hard to imagine this remaining a fairly dark and unsettling child’s nightmare. Still, once David is behind the wheel of his very own spaceship, you can feel the Disney machine taking the wheel from Rod Serling.

Cramer is pretty good at carrying the entire film (this was his lone starring role). Cliff DeYoung and Veronica Cartwright are effective as David’s parents, Howard Hessman is fine as the scientist overseeing David’s period of surveillance and I especially liked Matt Adler (the lead in “North Shore”) as David’s “older little brother.

The biggest name here is actually Paul Reubens, providing the voice of “Max” during his superstardom as Pee-Wee Herman (Reubens is credited as “Paul Mall” but it’s a big role, even though you never see the actor).

The science fiction at hand is wobbly, as there’s never a good explanation why aliens would abduct a kid, spend years with him, then erase his memories and dump him back on Earth, let alone do essentially the same thing with a menagerie of other aliens onboard. A big deal is made about how time travel could vaporize you, though the movie demonstrates that it’s really not a big deal at all.

FAST FACT: Young Joey Cramer’s film career began, and ended in the 1980s. Decades later, he made headlines for all the wrong reasons. He got arrested in 2016 for robbing a British Columbian bank.

There’s a major missed opportunity at the story level: its established early on that David has a crush on Jennifer Bradley, a girl seen riding her bike in his neighborhood. She’s roughly the same age as David. When we get to the second act, David meets the much-older Carolyn, a worker at NASA who is both friendly and flirtatious(!) and she’s played by Sarah Jessica Parker.

It would be an easy fix explaining that Carolyn is the grown-up version of the girl David once was infatuated with, that Carolyn’s being especially sweet to David is a reflection of an equally unfulfilled crush from childhood. Nope, Parker is playing a completely different character and her behavior towards David, while not wildly out of line, is at least inappropriate.

As goofy and juvenile as this is, its efficiently crafted, carefully paced and a lot of fun. This is easily one of the best live-action Disney films of the late ’80s, around that time where movies like “Trenchcoat” and “The Devil and Max Devlin” were on their way out, while works like this and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” became a valuable priority.

While not a success in theaters, “Flight of the Navigator” found an appreciative audience on videocassette and repeat viewings on The Disney Channel, where I watched it dozens of times.

In addition to Silvestri’s score, surprisingly strong visual effects and a welcome sense of humor, the aerial footage is a major asset. The allure of the premise (being a kid with his own spaceship) comes across through the stirring exterior spaceship footage.

Kleiser’s career is a fascinating example of a director who made a slew of mainstream hits that had nothing in common with one another (try watching this and his “The Blue Lagoon” and “Grease” and finding any kind of connective thread).

While Kleiser makes crowd pleasing hits, this one stands out for being especially ambitious and, when we’re soaring through the air, exciting, too.

I wish there wasn’t that cheap shot in there about Japan (complete with a stereotypical joke) and why does the PG rating allow so much profanity in a Disney film? Cut the bad words and Parker’s creepy fixation on David and this easily would have rated G.

In any case, this is one of the standout titles in the Disney catalog. While it’s at its strongest when it’s about childhood fears than giving us a boy’s sci-fi fantasy, “Flight of the Navigator” has a timeless appeal, and I could vouch for that firsthand: what was once one of my favorite movies growing up is now among my five-year-old daughter’s as well.  

It seems every kid wants their own spaceship.

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