The Story of Flight of the Navigator

James Logie

It was the early days of CGI and a spaceship/time travel story that was the dream of every kid

Flight of the Navigator came out in 1986 and told the story of 12-year-old David Freeman, who is abducted by an alien spacecraft and is returned 8 years later.

Walt Disney Pictures released it, and it would go on to create a large cult following.

It featured Paul Reubens aka Pee Wee Herman, for some reason, even though he never was listed in the credits. They’ve been talking about remakes for years, but nothing has come of it.

Here’s the story of Flight of the Navigator.

The Plot of Flight of the Navigator

In case you haven’t seen it, or need a quick refresh, here’s a basic plot of FOTN:

12-year old David Freeman lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his parents and younger brother Jeff.

On his way walking through the forest to pick up Jeff he accidentally falls into a ravine and is knocked tf out.

When he comes to, he heads home only to find that his parents aren’t living there anymore. He passes out and when he comes to, he’s in the hospital as has matched the photo of a missing person.

But somehow, he has not aged at all.

In the meantime, NASA has captured a crashed alien spacecraft and is keeping it hidden and under wraps.

Somehow, David’s brain images are showing the exact image of the captured spaceship, and they keep him at NASA to study him more.

It turns out Davids mind is filled with a ton of star charts and information and they find out he was taken to a planet called Phaelon.

He was only gone for 2.2 hours but had been traveling at the speed of light. Time was normal for him but 8 years had passed on earth.

David is now getting telepathic communication from the spaceship. He goes to meet it and finds out it’s called the Trimaxian Drone Ship--well the robot operator is anyway.

David decides to call him Max, who is trying to collect biological organisms from around the universe. Max needs the charts from David’s mind and he gets them.

Max has also taken a lot of data from David’s brain and now somehow has turned into Pee-Wee Herman.

David has already met his aged parents and brother and has a chance to go back to live with them. But it’s a world he doesn’t know.

He takes the risk to travel back in time to try to go back to his normal world and family.

And it works.

Early Production on Flight of the Navigator

What does Flight of the Navigator and Grease have in common? Well, they share the same director.

Flight of the Navigator was directed by Randal Kleiser who also worked on Honey, I Blew Up The Kid, Big Top Pee Wee, The Blue Lagoon, and White Fang.

Grease came out in 1978, and it might be why Flight of the Navigator is set in 1978.

And you also hear “You’re The One That I Want” when the family is riding around in their vintage station wagon.

They would mainly film Flight of the Navigator in Florida. It was originally going to be filmed in Los Angeles and Dallas but there was too much poor weather that delayed the shoot.

Florida can be really hit or miss as far as weather but they got pretty lucky and could make use of the warm weather and sunshine.

They would use sound stages in Miami for all the NASA based shots. And here’s something most don't know: they also filmed some of the movie in Norway.

They would use the outskirts of Oslo for spaceship shots, like when it's flying over marshes and countrysides.

The Early Production Company

Flight of the Navigator is associated with Disney but they really had nothing to do with it at its start.

It was actually an independent production by a Norwegian company called Viking Film, but they had to declare bankruptcy during the shooting of the movie.

It seems like a tough movie for an independent film company to take on and they might have bitten off more than they could chew with it.

After going bankrupt, Viking Film didn't want to give up on the movie as they believed they had something unique on their hands.

They approached Disney about taking over the project and they went for it.

Disney seemed to like the movie, but they weren’t head over heels for it. They had released the Return to Oz the year before and weren’t getting great feedback on it.

Live action movies seemed to trip them up a bit, and they didn't know how to market Flight of the Navigator.

They handed this responsibility over to a group called Producers Sales Organization or PSO.

PSO distributed a lot of movies overseas and they teamed up with Disney to distribute the movie. Disney would focus on the U.S., and PSO would target the rest of the world.

Producers Sales Organization would also go bankrupt in 1986--the same year the movie came out.

Early Use of CGI

Obviously groundbreaking at the time, the CGI images of the ship still hold up today.

The technology to create a photo-realistic image that could reflect the surrounding environment--as the ship does--was a brand new technology called reflection mapping.

Jeff Kleiser, brother of Randal, was in charge of creating the ship. His brother had shown him the Flight of the Navigator script and Jeff thought how the ship should be chrome, so they could use this new “reflection mapping” software.

Disney loved the early images of what was possible with the ship but for some reason, there were internal conflicts with the company that created the effect called “Digital Effects."

Disney would not hire a company that faced such turmoil, so Jeff connected with “Omnibus Computer Animation” to do work on Flight of the Navigator.

To create some of the effects of the ship, they would digitize moving video images from videotape that had been transferred from the background film plates in which the spaceship was to be seen.

They then mapped these images frame-by-frame onto the animated spaceship scanned onto 35mm film and composited optically over the film background plates.

They would then have to render the spaceship to get it onto the film by using a prototype “supercomputer."

It had very little disk space, so they would have to render on the fly by sending the data directly to the film recorder as it was being computed.

This was a sketchy way to work, but it was 1985 and there were not a lot of other options.

Because of working this way, they had no way to re-shoot a scene. The computer would also crash 5-6 times a day, making it really tight to get all the shots done in time.

The Music of Flight of the Navigator

The soundtrack for Flight of the Navigator used 1980s synth-based sounds and dance-like patterns.

Capitalizing on the success of the advancement of new wave music gives the movie an extremely dated feel.

The music was composed by the great Alan Silvestri who just came off one of the best soundtracks of all time in Back To The Future.

Back to the Future used a full orchestra, but Silvestri would create an electronic score to match the technological theme of Flight of the Navigator.

Why Is Pee-Wee Herman in This Movie?

If you were a fan of Pee-Wee Herman, you realized the character of Max sounded exactly like him.

Pee-Wee Herman was played by Paul Reubens and in the credits of Flight of the Navigator, the voice of Max was done by Paul Mall.

Who was Paul Mall and why was this such a blatant rip off? Turns out it was Paul Reubens, but why was he not properly credited.?

According to the director, it was because he wanted to remain low-key, which is difficult when he was doing one of the most distinctive voices in television history.

Paul Reubens and Pee-Wee Herman were big in 1986 so this may have been done as a way to surprise people who went to see the movie as they wouldn't have seen his name associated with it.

There is a plot hole, however. After Max does the mind transfer of all the data and star maps, he also gets it crossed up with a lot of what fills the mind of a 12-year-old kid (two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun).

The problem is David’s mind is coming from 1978, and the voice was being used as something that would have been familiar to David.

It would be impossible to be Pee-Wee Herman as “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” didn't come out until 1985. Paul Reubens didn't even have his first HBO special until 1981.

The first time the Pee-Wee Herman character was ever seen on TV was on “The Dating Show” in 1979.

So unless David saw him perform at the Groundlings in 1978, there is no way he would know that voice.

The Reception to Flight of the Navigator

Flight of the Navigator did pretty well as far as its critical response.

The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times generally praised it and even today has a 83% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

It came out the same weekend as the infamous “Howard the Duck” and “Friday the 13th Part VII."

It came out on July 30, 1986, and on its opening weekend, it made $3.1 million dollars. Converted for today, that would equal about $7 million, so not an outstanding result.

It ended up being #9 for all movies that opening weekend and overall it made around $18.5 million, which converted for today is around $42 million.

It was made for $9 million so it did pretty decently. Not amazing--but definitely OK.

Here are some other random facts about Flight of the Navigator:

Early Foreshadowing

The people at NASA might have been showing that they were the bad guys in the movie as indicated in the scene where David first movies into his room.

On the bed, they put a bunch of random toys for him.

Among all the product placement was two specific toys; Decepticon “Shrapnel” and a G.I Joe COBRA water Moccasin boat.

It seems interesting that the evil NASA would give him the also evil Decepticon and COBRA toy possibly indicating their motives as well.

Sarah Jessica Parker Not A Fan?

A young Sarah Jessica Parker would play Carolyn McAdams, one of the young workers at NASA, and would help David escape.

She was already becoming a pretty big star after “Footloose” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”

She doesn't seem to have a soft spot for the movie and it was pretty much just a quick gig and payday for her.

She’s been asked about her time on the movie and what drew her to it but she’s always been pretty dismissive of it saying she doesn’t even know what the movie’s about.

A Flight of the Navigator Remake?

They’ve said as far back as 2009 there was a remake in the works. Then in 2012, Disney hired Colin Trevorrow to rewrite a script for it.

Turns out he would be too busy with “Jurassic World."

In 2017, Lionsgate and The Jim Henson Company announced that a reboot of Flight of the Navigator is now in pre-production.

That’s as much that is known right now but It still feels like a long shot.

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.


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