Flight of the Navigator

December 14, 2011

Back in the relatively innocent days of 1982, Steven Spielberg updated and energized the old chestnut about a boy and his dog, with an extraterrestrial standing in for the pooch. The success of E.T. had Hollywood scrambling to make movies about kids and creatures (while Spielberg flipped the formula with Gremlins).

Many of the creatures turned out to be mechanical; robots marching in the electronic wake of the Star Wars machines. But by and large, the movies were pretty mechanical, too.
In just the last couple of months, the boy-and-machine formula has been used in Short Circuit, SpaceCamp, even The Manhattan Project if you count Christopher Collet’s closeness to his atomic bomb. And who could deny that Tom Cruise’s most meaningful relationship in Top Gun is with his F-11?

Given this recent, largely regrettable track record, all who approach Flight of the Navigator (the latest from the revitalized Disney studio) with clenched teeth are to be forgiven. This time the boy’s best friend is a wise-cracking flying saucer.

But I must report that my own clenched teeth relaxed considerably during the running time of this film. It’s nothing great, but it’s efficiently entertaining and based on a neato idea that ought to impress a lot of 10-year-olds. And it’s cute without being cutesy—most of the time, anyway.

One reason may be that the flying saucer, which is basically a flying computer with a dash of personality, doesn’t enter the film until halfway through. Until then, we’re tantalized by a mystery.

One night in 1978, a 12-year-old boy (Joey Cramer) falls into a ravine near his parents’ house. Knocked cold, he rouses himself later and scampers home. But his parents (Cliff de Young, Veronica Cartwright) aren’t at the house; in fact, they don’t even live there anymore.

Eventually, the kid finds them, but they’ve aged eight years (they’d given him up for dead). His little brother now stands a foot above him. Our hero can’t have been unconscious more than a couple of hours, so what gives?

Fans of time-travel stories will figure out that the kid must’ve been traveling at the speed of light, where aging is slowed—he didn’t change, while eight years went by on Earth. That’s exactly why NASA grabs the boy—they want to find out why he reappeared just when a pretty silver spaceship plonked down on Florida soil.

Turns out the kid had taken a little intergalactic trip, and his flying days aren’t over yet. For the last half of the film, he’ll reacquaint himself with his spaceship friend, who unaccountably sounds a lot like Pee-wee Herman.

Strictly lightweight fare, but under the direction of Randal Kleiser (who guided Grease and the memorably vapid Summer Lovers), it doesn’t get too stupid. Mindless, maybe, but not stupid. There is a difference, and for Kleiser, good-hearted mindlessness is actually a step up. And if you don’t think that’s saying much, you obviously didn’t see Summer Lovers.

First published in the Herald, August 1, 1986

I try to get in a Summer Lovers reference whenever I can. I have to say this movie has been wiped from the brain pan, but the basic idea sounds sort of interesting, and more than a little freaky for the core Disney audience.