Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Live-action edition. Flight of the Navigator

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Flight of the Navigator

Year: 1986

Budget: $9 million

Box office: $18,564,613

Plot: On the night of July 4, 1978, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 12-year-old David Freeman walks through the woods to pick up his 8-year-old younger brother, Jeff, from a friend’s house when he accidentally falls into a ravine and is knocked unconscious. When he comes to, he discovers that eight years have passed and it is now 1986. Police are shocked to see David fits exactly the same photo on a missing child poster, not having aged at all. David is reunited with his aged parents and the now 16-year-old Jeff.


Meanwhile, an alien spaceship crashes through power lines and is promptly captured by NASA. David is taken to the hospital for tests, where his brainwaves reveal images of the spaceship. Dr. Louis Faraday, who has been studying it since its arrival, persuades David to come to a NASA research facility for just 48 hours for extra tests, promising him that they can help him learn the truth about what happened to him. There, Dr. Faraday discovers that David’s mind is filled with alien technical manuals and star charts covering expanses of the galaxy far exceeding NASA’s research.


It tells the scientists that he was taken to a planet called Phaelon, 560 light years away, in just over 2.2 hours. They realize that he has experienced severe time dilation as a result of having traveled faster than the speed of light, explaining why eight years have passed on Earth, but not for him.


The next morning, David secretly boards the spaceship and meets its robotic commander, “Trimaxion Drone Ship” (or “Max” for short), which refers to David as the “Navigator”. Max tells David that his mission was to travel across the galaxy, collect biological specimens, take them to Phaelon for analysis, and then return them to their homes. Phaelon’s scientists discovered humans only use 10% of their brain and, as an experiment, filled the remainder of David’s with star charts. Max then returned him to Earth, but did not take him back to his own time, having determined that a human would be unlikely to survive a trip back in time. Before leaving Earth, Max accidentally crashed the spaceship, erasing all the computer’s star charts and data. Therefore, he needs the information in David’s brain to return home.


Max performs the mind transfer on David to reacquire the star charts, but in the process also contracts human emotional attributes. Meanwhile, NASA intern Carolyn McAdams, who has befriended David, contacts David’s family and tells them about his escape in the spaceship. When the spaceship stops at a gas station in the Florida Keys, David calls Jeff and asks him to send a signal to locate their new home, and Jeff sets off fireworks on the rooftop.


David and Max arrive at the house, but NASA agents, having tracked the spaceship’s every move, get there first. Fearing that he would be institutionalized for life if he remains in 1986, he orders Max to return him to 1978. Max warns this could vaporize David, but David accepts the risk. After the journey back in time, he wakes up in the ravine, walks home, and finds everything as he left it.

Background: Flight of the Navigator started as an independent production by a Norwegian company called Viking Film but they declared bankruptcy during shooting. Viking Film approached Disney about taking over the project. Al’s Alligator Farm, a general store and dilapidated roadside attraction, was filmed at the BR Horse Ranch, owned by actor Burt Reynolds, in Jupiter, FL.

Animation: The Trimaxion Drone Ship was rendered in computer-generated imagery by Omnibus Computer Animation, under the supervision of Jeff Kleiser, the brother of director Randal Kleiser.


” I was president of Digital Effects, Inc in 1985. It was a company I had formed with 6 other partners in 1978 in NYC, and we had done a lot of commercials using in-house software that had been written by my partners. Among the software developments we were toying with was reflection-mapping, where a photographic image was mapped onto a CG surface to create the illusion that the object was reflecting the environment… We did a test where we made a simple spaceship (the ship for the movie had not yet been designed) and reflected a photograph onto it. The ship flew toward camera and rotated around and then flew off (wish I could find it!)… We then matted the reflected ship over the photograph so the composite would show how the spaceship appeared to be reflecting the environment.” -Jeff Kleiser

Music: The music score for the film was composed by Alan Silvestri. It is distinct from his other scores in being entirely electronically generated, using the Synclavier, one of the first digital multi-track recorders and samplers. Alan Silvestri has composed scores for the Back to the Future trilogyWho Framed Roger Rabbit, Cast Away, Forrest Gump, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, Predator, Predator 2, The Abyss, The Quick and the Dead, Mac and Me, Mouse Hunt, Stuart Little, The Mummy Returns, Lilo & Stitch, Night at the Museum and its sequels, and Ready Player One.


Joey Cramer as David Freeman. His acting roles include Runaway, D.A.R.Y.L., I-Man, The Clan of the Cave Bear, and Stone Fox. Paul Reubens 1 as the voice of Max. In his persona of Pee Wee Herman, he starred in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Big Top Pee Wee. Other roles include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Batman Returns, Matilda, Dunston Checks In, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Mystery Men, Blow, and The Smurfs.

Cliff DeYoung as Bill Freeman. Film roles include Harry and Tonto, The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case, Captains and the Kings, The 3,000 Mile Chase, Centennial, Blue Collar, Shock Treatment, Master of the Game, Glory, Suicide Kings, and Last Flight Out. Veronica Cartwright as Helen Freeman. She played roles in The Children’s Hour, The Birds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien, The Right Stuff, The Witches of Eastwick, Spencer’s Mountain, Kym Karath, Inserts, Goin’ South, Money Talks, Scary Movie 2, Kinsey, and Straight-Jacket.

Sarah Jessica Parker as Carolyn McAdams. She is known for her role as Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City. 2 Other film roles include Footloose, Firstborn, L.A. Story, Honeymoon in Vegas, Hocus Pocus, Ed Wood, The First Wives Club, The Family Stone, State and Main, Failure to Launch, and Did You Hear About the Morgans? Howard Hesseman as Dr. Louis Faraday. He is best known for playing DJ Dr. Johnny Fever on WKRP in Cincinnati, Captain Pete Lassard in Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment, Sam Royer on One Day at a Time and schoolteacher Charlie Moore on Head of the Class. Other roles include Sunshine Boys, Shampoo, Clue, This Is Spinal Tap, and Halloween II.

Critical Reception:

  • Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times said its biggest plus was “its entirely believable, normal American family.”
  •   The New York Times described it as “definitely a film most children can enjoy.”
  • People declared it “out-of-this-world fun.”
  • Empire gave it 3/5 stars, saying it was “well-made enough to keep the family happy, but it certainly won’t challenge them.”
  • Variety was more critical, announcing that “instead of creating an eye-opening panorama, Flight of the Navigator looks through the small end of the telescope.”
  • Dave Kehr gave it 3 stars and described it as “a new high for Disney.”

Legacy: The ship used to be on display at Hollywood Studios in the “boneyard” of the Studio Backlot Tour (now the site of Toy Story Land)

My take: Well, it’s a movie. The first part is more interesting. It’s more of a mystery. Then he gets on the ship and it’s goofy from that point on.

Next Week: Something Wicked This Way Comes