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Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Live-action Edition. The Rocketeer

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: The Rocketeer

Year: 1991

Source materials: The graphic novel by Dave Stevens

Budget: $35-40 million

Box office: $46.7 million

Plot: In 1938 Los Angeles, two gangsters in Eddie Valentine’s gang steal a rocket pack from Howard Hughes. During their escape from the authorities that ends up on an airfield, one gangster is shot to death, the getaway driver hides the rocket pack, and stunt pilot Cliff Secord’s Gee Bee racer is totaled in the resulting auto-airplane accident, crippling his career.


Secord and airplane mechanic Peevy later find the rocket pack hidden in a biplane cockpit. Movie star Neville Sinclair had hired Valentine’s gang to steal the rocket pack, and he sends his monstrous henchman Lothar to question the injured getaway driver, who tells him about his hiding the rocket pack at the airfield.


Cliff’s girlfriend is aspiring actress Jenny Blake, who has a bit part in Sinclair’s latest swashbuckling film, but recent events begin to drive a wedge in their relationship. Sinclair overhears Cliff attempting to tell Jenny about the rocket pack, so he invites her to dinner.


Afterward, at a local air show, Cliff uses the rocket pack (and Peevy’s newly designed face-hiding finned helmet) to rescue his friend Malcolm, who is drunkenly piloting the biplane. The newsreel press and Valentine’s gangsters all see him from the airshow audience, whereupon “The Rocketeer” becomes a media sensation, but also sets Sinclair and the FBI on Cliff’s tail.


Sinclair sends Lothar to Cliff and Peevy’s home to find the rocket pack. The FBI arrives, but Cliff and Peevy escape while Lothar steals the rocket pack’s detailed schematics drawn up by Peevy. Later, at the airfield diner, Cliff and Peevy are trapped by several Valentine mobsters; they learn about Jenny’s date with Sinclair, and the actor’s involvement in the hunt for the rocket pack.


The diner patrons overpower the gangsters, while a bullet ricochet punctures the rocket pack’s fuel tank, which Peevy temporarily patches with Cliff’s chewing gum. Cliff proceeds to the South Seas Club, where he tells Jenny about his new rocket-powered alter ego. The Valentine gang arrives, and Jenny is kidnapped by Sinclair in the ensuing melée.


At Sinclair’s home, Jenny discovers that he is a Nazi secret agent and knocks him out, but is soon re-detained and forced to leave a message for Cliff to bring the rocket pack to the Griffith Observatory in exchange for her life. Just before he is arrested by the FBI and taken to Hughes and Peevy, Cliff hides the rocket pack.


Hughes explains that his rocket pack is a prototype, similar to one that Nazi scientists have, up to now, been unsuccessful in developing; he shows them a horrifying propaganda film that reveals the scope of the Nazis’ plans, depicting an army of flying soldiers invading the United States. The FBI agents mention that they are tracking a Nazi spy in Hollywood, whom Cliff realizes must be Sinclair. When Hughes demands the return of the rocket pack, Cliff explains that he needs it to rescue Jenny; he escapes but inadvertently leaves behind a clue to where he is headed.


Cliff flies to the rendezvous, where Sinclair demands that Cliff give him the rocket pack. Cliff divulges to the mobsters that the actor is a Nazi; Valentine’s gang turn their weapons on Sinclair and Lothar, but Sinclair summons sixty heavily armed Nazi S.A. stormtroopers hidden at the observatory. The Nazi rigid airship Luxembourg (under the guise of a peace mission) appears overhead to evacuate Sinclair. FBI agents suddenly announce their presence, having secretly surrounded the area; they and the mobsters join forces to battle the Nazis. Sinclair and Lothar escape, dragging Jenny with them aboard the airship.

Cliff flies to and boards the airship, but during the ensuing showdown, Jenny accidentally sets the bridge on fire with a flare gun. Sinclair holds Jenny hostage, forcing Cliff to give him the rocket pack, but not before he secretly removes the chewing gum patch, allowing fuel to leak near the rocket pack’s exhaust. Sinclair dons the rocket pack and flies off, and the leaked fuel causes the rocket pack to catch on fire, causing Sinclair to plummet to his death on fire. Lothar is engulfed in flames as the airship explodes, but Cliff and Jenny are rescued at the last moment by Hughes and Peevy flying an autogyro.


Hughes later presents Cliff with a brand-new Gee Bee air racer and a fresh pack of Beemans gum. As Hughes leaves, Jenny returns Peevy’s rocket pack blueprints, which she found in Sinclair’s home; Peevy decides that, with some modifications, he can build an even better one.

Background: In 1985 creator Dave Stevens gave writers Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo a free option on The Rocketeer rights. Their plan was to make the film a complete homage to Republic’s Commando Cody serials, and use a cast largely associated with character actors. However, that same year, the trio approached William Dear to direct/co-write The Rocketeer, and they eventually dropped the low-budget idea

Walt Disney Studios eventually accepted The Rocketeer because they believed the film had toyetic potential and appeal for merchandising. The Rocketeer was set to be released through the studio’s Touchstone Pictures label; Stevens, Bilson, De Meo, and Dear all signed a contract which would permit them to make a trilogy of Rocketeer films. However, Disney studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg switched the film to a Walt Disney Pictures release.


Numerous project delays forced Dear to drop out as director. Joe Johnston, a fan of the comic book, immediately offered his services as director when he found out Disney owned the film rights. Johnston was quickly hired and pre-production started in early 1990.


The characterization of Neville Sinclair was inspired by movie star Errol Flynn, or rather by the image of Flynn that had been popularized by Charles Higham’s unauthorized and fabricated biography of the actor, in which he asserted that Flynn was, among other things, a Nazi spy. Because Higham’s biography of Flynn was not refuted until the late 1980s, the image of Flynn as a closet Nazi remained current all through the arduous process of writing and re-writing the script.

Rick Baker designed the Rondo Hatton-inspired prosthetic makeup designs for the Lothar character.The visual effects were designed and created by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) with Ken Ralston serving as the VFX supervisor. 1 Johnston’s insistence on a realistic flying rocketman led ILM to devise a lifelike Cliff Secord model that was filmed in “stop-motion-animation” coupled with an 18″ figurine that was manipulated by hand and in “go-motion” to create “motion-blur.” The Rocketeer’s attack on the Nazi Zeppelin was filmed over four months near Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park in Valencia, California through pick-ups.

Changes from the Source Material: Cliff’s girlfriend was inspired by Bette Page. They changed her name from Betty to Jenny and her profession from nude model to Hollywood extra. They changed the climax from a submarine into a Zeppelin setpiece. In the original story, the character of Howard Hughes was the pulp adventure hero Doc Savage.

Animation: There is a brief animated sequence clearly inspired by Victory Through Air Power

Music: The score was written by James Horner. It features two songs performed by Melora Hardin

Cast: Timothy Dalton, Paul Sorvino, and Clint Howard return.

Billy Campbell as Cliff Secord/The Rocketeer. 2 He first gained recognition for his recurring role as Luke Fuller in the TV series Dynasty. Since then, he became known for playing Rick Sammler on Once and Again, Det. Joey Indelli on Crime Story, Jordan Collier on The 4400, and Dr. Jon Fielding on the Tales of the City miniseries. His most notable films include Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Enough. He portrayed Darren Richmond on the AMC television series The Killing, and played Dr. Alan Farragut in the SyFy series Helix. Jennifer Connelly as Jenny Blake. 3 She made her film acting debut in the crime film Once Upon a Time in America. Subsequent films include Phenomena, Labyrinth, Career Opportunities, Dark City, Requiem for a Dream, A Beautiful Mind, 4 Hulk, Dark Water, Blood Diamond, The Day the Earth Stood Still, He’s Just Not That Into You, Creation, Noah, and Alita: Battle Angel.

Alan Arkin as A. “Peevy” Peabody. He is known for his performances in The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, Wait Until Dark, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Popi, Catch-22, The In-Laws, Edward Scissorhands, Glengarry Glen Ross, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, Little Miss Sunshine, 5 Get Smart, Sunshine Cleaning, and Argo. Terry O’Quinn as Howard Hughes. He is best known for playing John Locke on Lost, 6 the title role in The Stepfather and Stepfather II, and Peter Watts in Millennium. He appeared in such films as Silver Bullet, Tombstone, Heaven’s Gate, and Young Guns.

Ed Lauter as Fitch. Among his most prominent film roles were The Longest Yard, King Kong, Magic, Death Hunt, Timerider, Death Wish 3, My Blue Heaven, Seraphim Falls, and The Artist. James Handy as “Wooly” Wolinski. Among his feature film credits are 15 minutes, Jumanji, Guarding Tess, The Rocketeer, Arachnophobia, Bird, Burglar, Brighton Beach Memoirs, The Verdict and K-9. Made for television movies in which he has appeared include A Family Torn Apart, Obsessed, Guilty Until Proven Innocent, and The Preppie Murder.

Jon Polito as Otis Bigelow. Notable television roles included Detective Steve Crosetti in the first two seasons of Homicide: Life on the Street and as Phil Bartoli on the first season of Crime Story. He also appeared in several films including The Crow and Gangster Squad, as well as his work with the Coen brothers. He appeared in five of their films, including Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski. Polito also portrayed legendary “hungry i” nightclub impresario Enrico Banducci in Big Eyes. William Sanderson as Skeets. famous for his roles in Blade Runner, Newhart, Deadwood, and True Blood. He e has made appearances in television shows such as The Pretender, The X-Files, Knight Rider, Married… with Children, Babylon 5, ER, Coach, and Walker, Texas Ranger. He also voiced the recurring character Dr. Karl Rossum in Batman: The Animated Series.

Margo Martindale as Millie. She won a Primetime Emmy Award and a Critics’ Choice Television Award for her recurring role as Mags Bennett on . Justified. She was nominated for an Emmy Award four times for her recurring role as Claudia on The Americans. She has played supporting roles in several films, including Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, The Hours, Million Dollar Baby, Dead Man Walking, The Firm, Lorenzo’s Oil, …First Do No Harm, Eye of God, Win Win, Marvin’s Room, Forged, Orphan, The Savages, Hannah Montana: The Movie, August: Osage County, and Paris, je t’aime. She also voices a fictional version of herself on BoJack Horseman. Melora Hardin as South Seas Singer. She known for her roles as Jan Levinson on The Office and Trudy Monk on Monk. She started as a child actor in The Love Boat and Little House on the Prairie. Movie credits include Thank You for Smoking and Hannah Montana: The Movie.

Max Grodénchik as Wilmer. He best known for his role as Rom on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Tiny Ron Taylor as Lothar. A former basketball player. He is known for Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Naked Gun, Police Squad!, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager.

Critical Reception:

  • Roger Ebert enjoyed the film, noting its homages to the film serials of the 1930s–1950s. Although Ebert cited the visual effects as being state of the art, he described them “as charmingly direct as those rockets in the Flash Gordon serials—the ones with sparklers hidden inside of them, which were pulled on wires in front of papier-mâché mountains”.
  • Leonard Maltin wrote that the “film captures the look of the ’30s, as well as the gee-whiz innocence of Saturday matinée serials, but it’s talky and takes too much time to get where it’s going. Dalton has fun as a villain patterned after Errol Flynn”.
  • Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine also gave a positive review. “The Rocketeer is more than one of the best films of the summer; it’s the kind of movie magic that we don’t see much anymore”, he continued, “the kind that charms us, rather than bullying us, into suspending disbelief”.

Legacy: The Rocketeer was nominated for both the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film, but lost both categories to Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Costume designer Marilyn Vance won the Saturn Award for Best Costumes, while Jennifer Connelly (Best Supporting Actress) and VFX supervisor Ken Ralston (Best Special Effects) also received nominations. In May 2011 IDW debuted the first issue of Rocketeer Adventures.

Despite the disappointment at the box office, Horner’s theme is heard throughout the parks. The Rocketeer game was released in PC XP, Nintendo/Super Nintendo computer game formats. Electronic Gaming Monthly awarded The Rocketeer Video Game as their “Worst Movie-to-Game” of 1992.

Hollywood Easter Eggs:  Sinclair’s movie is a direct homage to The Adventures of Robin Hood, which starred Flynn, including the famous shot of the shadows fighting. Jenny meets both Clark Gable and W.C. Fields. Secord escapes using a model of Hughes’s plane The Spruce Goose. When Sinclair crashes, he destroys the last four letters of the HOLLYWOODLAND sign. The Bulldog cafe is based on an actual location.


My take: I found this movie to be charming and fun with a great score. The special effects were pretty good for 1991, but seem dated now. The film is very well cast.

Available on Disney +?: Yes

Next Week: James and the Giant Peach