THE 1980S: SCI-FI GETS FUN AGAIN
There was no time where the spirit of futuristic fun shined so vibrantly than in the 1980s, and even the “bad” stuff is still so much goddamn fun to rewatch today. The Last Starfighter, Flash Gordon, Ice Pirates, oh how I could go on and TRON! And better still, nobody was thinking of franchises and sequels, so sci-fi films just got to exist in this perfectly succinct little packages much like the short stories that popularized sci-fi in the 1950s.
Wrong movie, but Explorers is pretty dope too
Neither Gremlins, Ghostbusters nor Terminator were establishing horseshit “cinematic universes” and we know this because it took all of them over half a decade to get follow-ups. What I’m saying is the 1980s were a really great time for original ideas to thrive. The formula around this time seemed to be come up with an original idea and we’ll see what happens. And it was beautiful.
Honk if you owned a NASA hat
The most emblematic of all the films I’m talking about is E.T. (The Extra Terrestrial, if I must be clear.) It is singular. It is complete. It is the quintessential 80s movie. It is perfect. It is objectively the best of everything I’m talking about. But only upon talking to Mike Drucker on a recent podcast could I admit: If given the choice: I’d rather watch Flight of the Navigator. Maybe it’s because I’m from Florida (where the movie’s set), maybe the movie just hit me at the right time and the right place, but if I’m being honest, it’s mostly being a massive Disney fan. DISCLOSURE: This is my window sill.
Somewhere in my massive conclusion to my deceivingly palatable 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Roger Rabbit article, I tried to illustrate how shitty Disney was doing as a movie making company in the early-to-mid 1980s. There’s no real comparison I can think of since most movie studios don’t have entire theme parks devoted to decades of their previous successes, but in the early to mid 80s, there was a very mild chance Disney might cease making the product they’d been synonymous for 50 years, and maybe coast on the legacy of its past and licensing. (The only thing close to the situation I can think of is the odd, and scary limbo Studio Ghibli is going through currently.) It wasn’t for lack of trying, but after a string of costly failures, its animated division was in shambles, and it’s live-action wing, while significantly less costly and time intensive, wasn’t faring a whole lot better.
Speaking as a person approaching his 40s whose entire estate is almost entirely dependent on the appreciation of Disney merchandise, the company’s live-action efforts never seemed as worthwhile to The House of Mouse. As much as I love 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Davy Crockett, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Swiss Family Robinson (and yes, I could go on and TRON!), judging purely on baby clothes and Disney Park presence, it’s almost as if those movies never even existed. They aren’t represented in Disney’s stores and none of them (except Mary Poppins) are included in official “Disney Magic” montages. “These movies are dated!” you say? You wanna talk dated?! There is almost no speaking character in Pinocchio who doesn’t smoke, and I just watched that in a theater (at the Disney Museum) with kids. That film’s got Disneyland rides on multiple continents. I’m not bitter, though! That’s the gamble of theatrical animation: Do it right, and it can last forever.
DISNEY IN THE 1980s: Note that Midnight Madness contains no mention of Disney. The studio itself assumed its name was poison with its intended audience.
And truth be told, Disney’s live-action has been historically… pretty terrible. Cheap, ephemeral “content” of the purest kind, more often than not quickly consumed and cast aside by the very generation it was tailored for. Straight-to-VHS movies before such a thing ever existed! Again, this is coming from a boy with a complete set of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes lobby cards, but most of Disney’s-youth oriented fare of the 60s and 70s (The Parent Trap, Herbie/The Love Bug, The Absent Minded Professor, The Apple Dumpling Gang, and dare I say Gus: The Field Goal Kicking Mule?!) are remembered as well as the losing presidential candidates of the era. That’s right, these were the George McGovern of movies!
But where we stand today, Disney owns numerous television channels, on-demand outlets and movie distribution channels and STILL the odds of you seeing any of those aforementioned films on TV are next to zero. It’s a practice that continues to this day, and if you don’t believe me, allow me to remind you that High School Musical is over a decade old, and now it’s almost like it never happened in the first place. Furthermore, almost all of those aforementioned films received sequels or remakes that still didn’t help them remain in the zeitgeist. Most recently, the public let Disney know that Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was but a passing fancy, its success due more to interest in remembering the animated original than paying to see a CG-infused sequel from Hollywood’s favorite goth kid. Hallelujah for that. But if I had to grow up watching Follow Me Boys! and Sammy the Way Out Seal, than by gum, your stupid kids should be watching Flight of the Navigator right fucking now.
REMEMBER THAT MOVIE WITH THE KID AND THE SPACE SHIP?
But Flight of the Navigator is oddly well remembered, isn’t it, patient reader? Although hardly what you’d call a breakout success, it was one of the few Disney films from the era that critics didn’t hate. Furthermore, having made $18 million at the box office and doubling its reported budget, it was one of Disney’s few hits in the mid 80s. And while I’d like to claim the movie succeeds on its own merits, I know a lot of its success has to do with VHS boom it thankfully coincided with. Studios were just getting into the habit of dumping their catalogs onto department stores and rental shelves at that point, and without a lot of data to go on, I would bet my Flight of the Navigator laserdisc that home video is where it found most of its audience.
But seriously, you can’t have it
No, I don’t have the data to prove this, but I do have something else. Growing up at a time before the internet became a basic utility, I remember being asked by like minded boys and girls, both in person and on message boards, if anybody remembered that movie with the kid and the spaceship. “You know, the one that sounds like Pee-wee Herman?!” I know this because I had to ask it myself at one point. Once I had figured it out (The title itself might be the worst thing Flight of the Navigator has going for it) one of my first ever eBay purchases was an ancient Flight of the Navigator VHS, and it encouraged me to find video capture software in the days of coaxial cable just to prove to fellow nerds on the internet that the movie was not a dream. It was real! And it held up pretty fucking well, which I swear I’m gonna get to.
VHS is hardly the end of Flight of the Navigator’s home video tale. I have to think Disney was quite shocked by the internet’s joyous reaction once the movie was finally announced on DVD in 2004 (long after they ran out of mega-hits to dump onto disc), but things really gets fascinating in the next home format cycle: Blu-ray. I hear my fellow millennials shouting “Physical Media is dead!” Never mind that that’s only now truly becoming the case, even factoring in our ever-growing distaste for discs and spines on a shelf, a movie would have to be pretty special, either successful or beloved, to be released on Blu-ray then, wouldn’t it? This might take a true Disney mega fan to corroborate, but let me ask you this: How many live-action Disney movies made before 1990 have been released on Blu-ray? It’s cool, I’ll even allow you to count live-action/animation hybrid movies like Mary Poppins, Pete’s Dragon and Roger Rabbit!
Roger’s got his own article right here
Okay, so you’ve got Tron and what else? Really, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, one of Disney’s most successful and enduring live-action movies, isn’t on Blu-ray?! Nope, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, one of Disney’s most successful live-action films of the 1980s isn’t on Blu, nor its sequel. Not even Cool Runnings, a film that still occasionally plays on TV was seen fit to print on a High-Definition disc. But Flight of the Navigator? Flight of the Navigator miraculously has a Blu-ray.
You could interpret this as an alarming disinterest from Disney in its own non-animated product, but more optimistically, it would seem that either the fan base has been vocal enough to get an (admittedly no-frills) Blu-ray, or perhaps, somebody in the company loves Flight of the Navigator as much as I do. As much we do, patient reader! To put it simply: Flight of the Navigator is ONE OF FIVE films representing a half a century of Disney’s live-action output. That has to mean something. (I’m more than willing to be wrong about this, but I’m 90% percent I’m correct on any Blu-ray released in North America. By all means correct me in the comments.)