By Greg Ehrbar
Zooming into its 30th anniversary on July 30, Flight of the Navigator is a sci-fi adventure with a loyal legion of fans in its orbit. It starts with every kid’s nightmare—waking up in a strangely altered reality, then morphs into an awesome kid’s dream-come-true—piloting a spacecraft with a goofball robotic sidekick.
Director Randal Kleiser is no stranger to Disney, having helmed Honey, I Blew Up the Kid and White Fang, as well as the Honey, I Shrunk the Audience attraction at Disney Parks around the world. His numerous other films include the megahit movie version of Grease, and Hanna-Barbera’s Emmy®-winning live-action drama, The Gathering.
Kleiser shared some behind-the-scenes stories for D23.com readers. “One of the crazy things that happened was we used a stunt double for the back of the David’s head when he was steering the spaceship along the wetlands,” he said. “The stunt boy was Norwegian and didn’t understand English. So if I said for him to move left, they translated from English to Norwegian—but by the time the boy would move left, he should have been going right. So it took all day and was very difficult to shoot.”
Some of the film was shot in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with local Florida actors and real news anchors. But when we go inside of the ship, we’re in Norway. “All the interiors of the spaceship were shot in a warehouse, one hour outside of Oslo,” Kleiser recalls. “It was during the cold months of February. The reason we shot there was that the producer had blocked funds there that could only be spent in Norway. I later heard a rumor that the blocked funds never came through. If that’s the case, we flew the crew from Florida to Norway for no reason!”
One big surprise for 1986 audiences was the voice of MAX, the ship’s computer: Paul Reubens, who had already become a movie star in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. In Flight, he used the pseudonym “Paul Mall” in the credits. Kleiser explains: “Paul did not want to have his name used in this project because he wanted to stay low key and have it be a surprise. Kind of like Matt Damon in Interstellar.”
An innovator in special effects, Kleiser was elected into the Science and Technology Committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2010. “The effects in Flight of the Navigator were cutting-edge for the time,” he says. “It was the first use of image-based lighting and an early use of morphing in a motion picture.”
Like other great big-screen fantasies, it’s touching and insightful as well as funny and exciting. Ultimately, it’s our connection with loved ones that is what matters most. “But what really seems to resonate with many viewers is the idea of a younger brother who becomes an older brother. Anyone who has a sibling can identify with this,” Kleiser says.
More fun Flight facts:
- The forest where David’s adventure begins was filmed at the Villa Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami (which at the time was, ironically, adjacent to the Museum of Science and Planetarium. In Iron Man 3, the Villa was used as the Mandarin’s lair.).
- The film marked the feature film debut of actress Sarah Jessica Parker.
- Flight is one of the few films or TV shows to depict non-glitzy, everyday suburban life in South Florida, right down to details like the Turnpike sometimes being faster than I-95.
- The film was released a few months before the opening of Star Tours at Disneyland Park, where Paul Reubens voiced another zany robotic pilot named Rex.