Why Disney Needs to Relaunch ‘Flight of the Navigator’

‘The Flight of the Navigator’ deserves to fly

With Cinderella a solid hit, Disney is busily filling up its release slate with live action remakes of its cartoon classics. The Mouse House recently announced a March 2017 premiere for Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, and new versions of The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon and Dumbo are all on the way.

So it’s only a matter of time until executives unlock the vault that contains the studio’s many, many live-action features. Think white clamshell VHS staples like Swiss Family Robinson, The Million Dollar Duck and The Journey of Natty Gann. Granted, many of these movies don’t require a re-do, either because they nailed it the first time (see Natty Gann — really…it’s fantastic) or because their obscurity is well-deserved. (Thought of Gus, the football-kicking mule comedy lately? There’s a good reason why not.) But there are a select few that stand as perfectly fine movies that could be equaled or even improved upon.

Flight of the Navigator belongs in that camp. Released in the summer of 1986 — sandwiched between The Great Mouse Detective and Transformers: The Movie on the kiddie movie front — the Randal Kleiser directed sci-fi film has an irresistible hook that speaks to practically any child: What if you could pilot your very own spaceship? The actual plot is more complicated than that, of course, involving time travel, distant alien worlds and an unscrupulous scientist played by a former Cincinnati-based sitcom radio DJ.

What kid wouldn’t want to pilot a spaceship?

Once you get past all that set-up, though, the fun starts when the film’s young hero, David (Joey Cramer) climbs aboard a Trimaxion Drone Ship and meets the onboard A.I.-enabled robot (voiced by Paul Reubens, under the nom-de-voiceover, Paul Mall), who turns the craft over to a 12 year old, who has as much experience driving a spaceship as he does driving a car. Naturally, his maiden flight is a little bumpy, but it isn’t long before he’s soaring through the skies while rocking out to the Beach Boys’ classic rock staple, “I Get Around.” That core idea of tooling around the planet in a sweet intergalactic ride, with music blasting and the landscape zooming by, is what appealed so strongly to kids like myself at the time, and still makes Navigator a nostalgic favorite.

David enters the craft for the first time

On the other hand, some of the specific ‘80s flourishes do keep the movie from feeling as timeless as other kid-oriented adventures from that era, including E.T. and The Princess Bride. When I showed the movie to my son a few years ago, he was bored by the belabored exposition (guilty confession: so was I) and responded to the jokes about MTV and Twisted Sister like they were an alien language. Fortunately, the shipboard sequences worked their intended magic, despite the sometimes shaky visual effects. When David climbed the silver stairs to enter the ship, my kid leaned forward the same way I did when I saw Navigator in theaters almost 30 years ago. And he cracked up at the same moment that always made me laugh, when the ship’s onboard robot responds to David’s command to take them “20 miles away” by rocketing 20 miles straight up into the heavens.

A misunderstanding of “20 miles away”

So clearly, the central “boy and his spaceship” premise of Flight of the Navigator still has the power to entrance a new generation, moreso than a duck who lays golden eggs or a human computer who wears tennis shoes. A potential remake could hang itself on that core idea, while cleaning up the dated details surrounding it. You wouldn’t necessarily even have to recycle the original’s time-travel story mechanics, which always felt like Disney’s response to the popularity of Back to the Future. Accelerate the kid’s arrival on the ship, which takes almost an hour in the original movie, and you’ll be able to get to the real heart of the story.  

There’s also no reason why it would have to still be a “boy and his spaceship” movie; one of the reasons I’m most excited for Brad Bird’s upcoming Tomorrowland — other than the fact that it’s a new Brad Bird movie — is that it’s going to send Britt Robertson’s teenage heroine on an adventure that Disney likely would have reserved for a boy back in 1986. Build a Flight of the Navigator reimagining around a talented young actress like Quvenzhané Wallis or Willow Shields from The Hunger Games and you’ll immediately unlock exciting new storytelling possibilities, especially if you pair them with the right robot voice. (And considering that women are dominating the box office right now, this would be a financially sound move.) Reubens is fun to listen to, especially when he inevitably busts out his Pee-wee Herman laugh, but there’s room to employ a dramatic actor like Bill Irwin, whose voiceover work as TARS in Interstellar may have been that movie’s finest performance.

David gets to know his ship-board robot

One thing that definitely should be retained from the first Flight, though, is its relative smallness. Disney has the cash and the incentive to construct huge franchises, but trying to spin one out of what’s essentially a one-shot story would be a miscalculation. That’s where finding the right filmmaker would be crucial, someone who could capably build a beginning, middle and end into one movie instead of spreading them out over three. In that regard, The Babadook’s Jennifer Kent would be an inspired choice, as that acclaimed horror film not only told a self-contained story in a limited setting, but also expertly reflected a child’s point of view. And had he not already graduated to epic blockbuster filmmaking with 2016’s Warcraft, it would have been fun to see what Moon’s Duncan Jones would have made of Navigator. For better and for worse, Flight of the Navigator is a product of its times. But the story and characters are durable enough to soar again.

Watch the trailer: