PG. Why is Flight of the Navigator so terrifying? It really is. If many many Disney movies put kids in peril, why does Flight of the Navigator stand out? Part of my argument later is that the peril comes from a very dangerous place. There's a lot of victimhood being touted around here masked by adventure. This might be one of the darker, if not sillier at times, Disney films. There might be some mild language as well. PG.
DIRECTOR: Randal Kleiser
I'm in a pickle again! This is another one of those movies that fell through the cracks. I didn't write it in my To-Do List and then I passed it up. I'm only a month behind on this one though. I can write about something I wrote about a month ago, right? Also, I got booted from my Catholic Movie Geeks page. The struggle of being a writer gets no harder than knowing that even fewer people will have access to writing. I got booted for writing this very blog, so that's always fun. It wasn't for content. It just for self-promotion. You know, letting people read your blog? I'm pretty salty.
When I brought up to my wife that my family movie night choices was going to be Flight of the Navigator, she thought I was nuts. I also presented The Goonies as an option, but I knew that wouldn't get through. The 1980s were a very different time for family films. The tone was just all over the place and the content was pretty intense. When she got anxious, I knew why. It's very hard to define why Flight of the Navigator is the next tier of family film. It isn't an innocent movie. I'm going to be using myself as an example, so please treat this only as anecdotal evidence, but I really believe that our heads and our hearts don't exactly communicate with us on this film. Having to summarize this film, I would wager that most people say that a kid finds his way onto a spaceship with the personality of Pee Wee Herman and escapes the government chasing him. It's not a perfect summary, but it will do in a pinch. I couldn't really fight that argument too hard. It seems like there's a family film in there. But there's something emotionally sinister about Flight of the Navigator that other films don't exactly carry.
I imagine that Return to Oz would be the next step beyond Flight of the Navigator. Navigator never gets as sinister as Return to Oz did, although it has been a while. (I have no desire to revisit that right now. I don't need my kids waking up in the middle of the night screaming.) But the reason, in my head, why Navigator is so troubling is the argument that I started introducing in my MPAA section. Navigator surrounds the concept of victimhood. It doesn't really address it very well. It's not like David is all about taking back the power stripped from him as a child. There is an element of that, and I don't want to dismiss that. But David is very much a passenger on his own journey. It's ironic that the movie is called Flight of the Navigator because he has as much authority and understanding of his own fate as a ride at Disney World. Also, how is there not a Flight of the Navigator ride at Disney World?
From David's perspective, he's completely devoid of responsibility of the things that happen to him. He treats his little brother with contempt. But regardless of the feelings that he harbors for his little brother, he would still have to go out to the woods to look for him. His brother is the one who enjoys playing pranks. It isn't due to David's actions that he is led to the hole where he falls. He falls in a hole and wakes up in the future. What goes from a sense of security goes into a darker version of what would actually happen to David? Instead of walking back into his life, he immediately gets involved in authorities. There's something that kids probably don't think about when it comes to kidnapping. I know that I tell my kids not to talk to strangers because they could get kidnapped, but Flight of the Navigator adds a sci-fi twist to that entire scenario to make it all the more real. Returning to one's own house to find it occupied by someone else is absolutely a haunting reality of a kidnapping victim that probably people don't think about.
Because I have to state this very very clearly: Max is the bad guy of the piece. We're all emotionally attached to NASA being the bad guy of Flight of the Navigator. It's probably one of the few times that NASA comes across as being evil. It's actually weird writing that. Part of it comes from the idea that the government is the bad guy. If you want to take that stance, please do. Just realize that everyone's wearing a NASA hat and it technically is a government agency. But Max straight up kidnaps David. Sure, he talks like Pee-Wee Herman (eventually) and is super charming. But David had no sense of agency or permission in the story that allowed these events to happen. It's a nightmare for him when he wakes up. He is alone in the woods, old people live in his house. When he reunites with his family, they want to love him but can't. I take it back. The house thing is scary, but the idea that your parents want to love you but can't? That's where it kind of crosses a line. Because you are the exact same, they can't look at you. I can't help but think of Room (not The Room!) and how this might be a commentary on the other side of that. The victimhood becomes about time. It's about this fantasy that can never exist: the return to innocence.
Which is what makes the end of this movie such a fantasy. If Flight of the Navigator is an allegory for missing persons reports and innocence lost, David is able to reclaim that time lost that no one else really has the ability to do. The movie, for all of its sci-fi tropes, really leans hard into the fantastic wishes of this kid. The movie straight up lies to us. It heavily implies that David wouldn't be able to survive the trip back in time. Max's choices throughout the story were to subject David to a series of disappointments and government experiments (which I never really got to tack onto the list of crimes that Max was responsible for). These things happened in an alternate reality. It all becomes part of a made up past for David that only he can't appreciate and understand. Yet, every single adult or advanced intellect in the story is ultimately selfish. Max uses David for his own understanding of humanity. The government uses David for an understanding of life beyond the stars. I don't know what Sarah Jessica Parker was doing, but she had a cool robot and that's probably pretty selfish, right?
Honestly, this movie might be family-friendly torture [insert word here]. David has an escapist adventure, but only because he's dealt this insane pile of horrible events that he has no control over. There's no moral that David can really overcome. If he had turned left instead of right, he could have been saved? Nope. David is the definition of a victim and that's really played throughout the film from moment one. It's probably what makes the movie so scary. Most kids' movies stress a lesson to be learned that gets the protagonist into trouble. It becomes part of the internal conflict. "Don't do this", the moral screams, "or you'll run into trouble." None of that. I don't deny that NASA is actually objectively spooky in this movie, but that's one small part of a much larger fear mood.
But that being said, my kids loved it. I loved it. I talk like this is some dire problem. It's just probably why Flight of the Navigator reads as something other when there are a bunch of other movies that put kids in danger. It's a fun film. I love the multiple levels of retro storytelling going on here. 1986 commenting on how advanced it is compared to 1979 is adorable. Regardless, just keep in mind why you probably feel a little nervous around this movie. It's the story of victimhood.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.