It was the early days of CGI and a spaceship/time travel story that was the dream of every kid
Flight Of The Navigator came out in 1986 and told the story of 12-year old David Freeman who is abducted by an alien spacecraft and is returned 8 years later. It was released by Walt Disney Pictures and would go on to create a large cult following.
I owned Flight Of The Navigator on VHS and I can tell you that it was the most-watched videotape in our house. I’m not sure how it became a staple of our viewing, or how we ever became aware of it. I definitely didn’t see it in the theatres and I barely remember the commercials for it.
Somehow it came into our hands and was one of my favorite movies of the ‘80s. The story of Flight of the Navigator is a good one and was the perfect movie for young kids who had dreams of flying their own spaceship but ultimately tells the story of the importance of family and home.
It featured Paul Reubens aka Pee Wee Herman, for some reason, even though he never was listed in the credits. They’ve been talking about remakes for years but I’m not holding my breath on this anymore.
Here’s the story of Flight of the Navigator.
The Plot Of Flight Of The Navigator
In case you haven’t seen it, or need a quick refresh, here’s a basic plot of FOTN:
12-year old David Freeman lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his parents and younger brother Jeff. On his way walking through the forest to pick up Jeff he accidentally falls into a ravine and is knocked tf out.
When he comes to he heads home only to find that his parents aren’t living there anymore. He passes out and when he comes to he’s in the hospital as he has matched the photo of a missing person but has somehow not aged at all.
In the meantime, NASA has captured a crashed alien spacecraft and is keeping it hidden and under wraps. Somehow David’s brain images are showing the exact image of the captured spaceship and they keep him at NASA to study him more.
It turns out Davids mind is filled with a ton of star charts and information and they find out he was taken to a planet called Phaelon. He was only gone for 2.2 hours but had been traveling at the speed of light so time was normal for him but 8 years had passed on earth. David is now getting telepathic communication from the spaceship and goes to meet it finding out it’s called the Trimaxian Drone Ship, well the robot operator is anyway.
David calls him Max and he and Max get the hell out of Dodge. Max is trying to collect biological organisms from around the universe. Max needs the charts from David’s mind and he gets them! Max has also taken a lot of data from David’s brain and now somehow has turned into Pee-Wee Herman.
David has already met his aged parents and brother and has a chance to go back to live with them but it’s a world he doesn’t know. He takes the risk to travel back in time to try to go back to his normal world and family.
And it works.
Early Production On Flight Of The Navigator
What do Flight of the Navigator and Grease have in common? Well, they share the same director. Flight of the Navigator was directed by Randal Kleiser (Kleiser, I hardly know her) who also worked on Honey, I Blew Up The Kid, Big Top Pee Wee, The Blue Lagoon, and White Fang.
The guy’s got a great classic movie resume if you ask me.
Grease came out in 1978 and it might be why Flight of the Navigator is set in 1978. And you also hear “You’re The One That I Want” when the family is riding around in their vintage station wagon.
Flight of the Navigator would mainly be filmed in Florida but was originally going to be filmed in Los Angeles and Dallas but there was too much bad weather which would delay the shoot. Florida can be really hit or miss as far as weather but they got pretty lucky and were able to make use of the warm weather and sunshine
Sound stages in Miami would be used for all the NASA based shots. And here’s something I had no idea about, some of the movie was also filmed in Norway. The outskirts of Oslo would be used for spaceship shots like when it’s flying over marshes and countrysides.
The Early Production Company
Flight of the Navigator is associated with Disney but they really had nothing to do with it at its start. It was actually an independent production by a Norwegian company called Viking Film but they went belly up and had to declare bankruptcy during the shooting of the movie. That sucks.
It seems like a tough movie for an independent film company to take on and they might have bitten off more than they could chew with it. After going bankrupt, Viking Film didn’t want to give up on the movie as they believed they had something unique on their hands. They approached Disney about taking over the project and they went for it.
Disney seemed to like the movie but they weren’t head over heels for it. They had released the Return to Oz the year before and weren’t getting great feedback on it. Live action movies seemed to trip them up a bit and they didn’t know how to market Flight of the Navigator.
Also, Return to Oz is kind of a messed up movie.
They handed this responsibility over to a group called Producer Sales Organization or PSO. PSO distributed a lot of movies overseas and they teamed up with the house of mouse to both distribute the movie. Disney would focus on the U.S and PSO would target the rest of the world.
Producer Sales Organization would also go bankrupt in 1986, the year the movie came out. There must have been some sort of curse related to Flight of the Navigator. Joey Cramer who played David has had some issues too including arrests with drug dealing and bank robbery. Yikes.
Early Use Of CGI
Obviously groundbreaking at the time the CGI images of the ship honestly still hold up today. The technology to create a photo-realistic image that could reflect the environment around it, as the ship does, was basically brand new technology at the time and was called “reflection mapping”.
Jeff Kleiser, brother of Randal, was in charge of creating the ship. His brother had shown him the Flight of the Navigator script and Jeff thought how the ship should be chrome as they would be able to use this new “reflection mapping” software.
Disney loved the early images of what was possible with the ship but for some reason, there were internal conflicts with the company that created the effect called “Digital Effects”. Disney wasn’t going to hire a company that would end up disbanding so Jeff would get on board with “Omnibus Computer Animation” to do work on Flight of the Navigator.
To create some of the effects of the ship they would digitize moving video images from videotape that had been transferred from the background film plates in which the spaceship was to be seen. These images were then mapped frame by frame onto the animated spaceship scanned onto 35mm film and composited optically over the film background plates.
They would then have to render the spaceship to get it onto the film by using a prototype “supercomputer”. It had very little disk space so they would have to render on the fly by sending the data directly to the film recorder as it was being computed.
This was a sketchy way to work but it was 1985 and there were not a lot of other options. Due to working this way they had no way to re-shoot a scene. The computer would also crash 5-6 times a day making it really tight to get all the shots done in time.
The Music Of Flight Of The Navigator
The soundtrack for Flight of the Navigator made real use of 1980s
I like it however and the music was composed by the great Alan Silvestri who just came off one of the best soundtracks of all time in Back To The Future. That used a full orchestra and he would use an electronic score to match the technological theme of Flight of the Navigator.
To me, it always had this Beverly Hills Cop/Miami Vice/Video game feel to it but still created some real moods and texture to the movie.
Why The Hell Is Pee-Wee Herman In This Movie?
As I kid I was obsessed with Pee-Wee Herman and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and the character of Max sounded exactly like him. I knew that Pee-Wee Herman was played by Paul Reubens and I remember looking through the credits to see that the voice of Max was done by Paul Mall.
Who the hell was Paul Mall and why was this such a blatant rip off? Turns out it was Paul Reubens but why was he not properly credited? According to the director, it was because he wanted to remain low-key which is kind of impossible when he was doing one of the most distinctive voices in television history.
This was pre-”indecent exposure” arrest so that wouldn’t be a factor. Paul Reubens and Pee-Wee Herman were big in 1986 so this may have been done as a way to surprise people who went to see the movie as they wouldn’t have seen his name associated with it.
I’ve discovered a major plot hole with all this though. After Max does the mind transfer of all the data and star maps he also gets it crossed up with a lot of what fills the mind of a 12 year old kid (two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun).
The problem is David’s mind is coming from 1978 and if the voice was being used as something that would have been familiar to David it would be impossible to be Pee-Wee Herman as “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” didn’t come out until 1985. Paul Reubens didn’t even have his first HBO special until 1981.
The first time the Pee-Wee Herman character was ever seen on TV was on “The Dating Show” in 1979. So unless David saw him perform at the Groundlings in 1978, where he first started, I don’t really know what the hell is going on in this movie.
The Reception To Flight Of The Navigator
Flight of the Navigator did pretty well as far as its critical response. It was generally praised by The New York Times and the Los Angelas Times and even today has a 83% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
It came out the same weekend as the infamous “Howard the Duck” and “Friday the 13th Part VII”.
It came out on July 30, 1986 and on its opening weekend, it made $3.1 million dollars which today would equal about $7 million so nothing crazy good. It ended up being #9 for all movies that opening weekend and overall it made around $18.5 million which converted for today is around $42 million.
It was made for $9 million so it did pretty decently. Not amazing but definitely OK.
Here are some other random facts about Flight of the Navigator:
The people at NASA might have been showing that they were the bad guys in the movie as indicated in the scene where David first moves into his room. On the bed, they put a bunch of random toys for him.
Among all the product placement was two specific toys; Decepticon “Shrapnel” and a G.I Joe COBRA water Moccasin boat.
It seems interesting that the evil NASA would give him the also evil Decepticon and COBRA toy possibly indicating their motives as well.
Sarah Jessica Parker Not A Fan?
A young Sarah Jessica Parker would play Carolyn McAdams who was one of the young workers at NASA and would help David escape. She was already becoming a pretty big star after “Footloose” and “Girls Just Want Have Fun”
She doesn’t seem to have a soft spot for the movie and it was pretty much just a quick gig and payday for her. She’s been asked about her time on the movie and what drew her to it but she’s always been pretty dismissive of it saying she doesn’t even know what the movie’s about.
OK, cool, “Carrie”…
Flight Of The Navigator Remake?
I feel like we’ve been hearing about this forever. Some things I’m not on board with as far as doing remakes or reboots but I think Flight of the Navigator could work.
It’s a pretty timeless story and could work in any day and setting. The technology has obviously caught up and I think if done well they could create a pretty epic movie.
They’ve said as far back as 2009 there was a remake in the works. Then in 2012 Disney hired Colin Trevorrow to rewrite a script for it. Turns out he would be too busy with “Jurassic World”, but I’m ok with that.
In 2017 Lionsgate and The Jim Henson Company announced that a reboot of Flight of the Navigator is now in pre-production. That’s as much that is known right now but I feel like we shouldn’t get our hopes up but here’s wishing…
Wrapping It Up
The story of Flight of the Navigator is a great one and it very easily could have never existed when you look at all the early problems in getting it made and produced. Luckily we were given, what I think, is one of the best kids movies of the ‘80s.
I’ve watched it a few times lately and I think it holds up pretty well outside of some of the music but that also gives it its charm and the nostalgia factor.
Hopefully, it’s as significant to you and you can’t hear the word “compliance” without thinking about it.