David Freeman (Joey Cramer) in 1978 was a typical twelve-year-old kid, but one day after he had attended a dogs' frisbee-catching contest in the afternoon with his family something happened to send him reeling. On the way back, his mother (Veronica Cartwright) and father (Cliff De Young) dropped his bratty younger brother (Albie Whitaker) off with his friends, and later as dusk fell his mother told him to go and fetch the boy back home for dinner. However, as David walked through the woods to find him, he became aware that he may not be alone...
Well, his brother Jeff was there to give him a fright, but there is another presence in the forest which on investigating David sets up the killer premise for this Disney movie. Back in the eighties, the famed studio were not doing amazingly well with such projects - this was actually an independent production they had rescued - but if Flight of the Navigator was no blockbuster it remained fondly recalled by those who saw it as children. Certainly for its opening half it was very promising as the mystery of what was happening to David was well sustained, and promised a far better movie than its latter half delivered.
During that opening we watched David fall into a small ravine and knock himself out, though he awakes soon afterwards and heads off home - or does he? Once he gets there, a different couple are living there and his family are nowhere to be seen, so he panics and the police are called. He is taken to the station and what has happened is pieced together like a jigsaw, taking the alien abduction scenario beloved of many ufologists and extrapolating it into a children's adventure, though David's missing time stretches not hours but years. Eight years to be exact, and he has no idea what has happened as for all he knew it was still 1978, though on seeing his parents have aged and brother is now a teenager older than he is, he is having trouble processing it all.
As in E.T. the Extraterrestrial, which Flight of the Navigator obviously sought to emulate the success of, our young hero's predicament attracts the attention of the government and soon he is stuck having his brain experimented on by a group of scientists led by Howard Hesseman in a lab somewhere. What he doesn't know is that a spacecraft of some variety has been found after crashing into power lines and subsequently taken to the same base he is at - do you think there could be some connection? Cramer did very well in these earlier scenes, called upon to do proper acting and convincingly confused as the baffled child: he's more interested in getting back to his normal life than he is expanding his mind with space alien business.
Which makes a refreshing change for a protagonist from a movie such as this, but before long the excellent set-up winds up as simpleminded goofiness when David boards the craft thanks to the help of the girl who brings his meals, a young Sarah Jessica Parker, also going above and beyond the call of duty to alert his family that their son has escaped and is on his way back to them. Which leaves the business of what happens once David is inside the ship, the answer to that being disappointing daftness as Paul Reubens (using a pseudonym) voices the alien machinery initially in sober fashion, then as the tone becomes lighter and less intelligent, as if he were channelling his alter ego Pee Wee Herman, and not in a good way. The special effects which were at the time state of the Disney art now look a lot less impressive, so what you had was a set up which promised much, but by the end was on the level of an eighties cartoon designed to fill up space between the junk food ads. Music by Alan Silvestri.