Times Staff Writer

What is it about Florida that seems to attract visitors from outer space?

In “Cocoon” and now in “Flight of the Navigator,” a pleasant Disney family film (citywide), Florida is the site of an eerie, otherworldly mission.

For the Freeman family of Fort Lauderdale, July 4, 1978, begins like any other Independence Day celebration: with community festivities. But when the Freemans’ youngest son, 12-year-old David (Joey Cramer), wanders off into a wooded thicket, he disappears. Not surprisingly, he has been the victim of a kidnaping, but, as it turns out, of a most exciting yet benign kind.

He’s been selected by a jaunty robot named Max, who’s got a headlight for a face, to be taken to an uncharted universe as part of a study of human beings. It’s just a quick jaunt, allowing David a spectacular trip in a metallic, podlike craft that can change shape at will. It has an intricate, chrome-plated interior and is populated with various cute Lucas-Spielberg-like creatures to keep the boy company. Before we know it David is deposited back in Fort Lauderdale, but there’s a hitch: What seemed but a brief adventure in outer space has taken eight years in earthly time.


As a science-fiction adventure, “Flight of the Navigator,” adapted by Michael Burton and Matt MacManus from Mark H. Baker’s story, is scarcely original, echoing every space or time-travel fantasy between “Star Wars” and “Back to the Future.” Yet by emphasizing the extraordinary experience of David’s return to a family that has grown eight years older while he’s remained the same age, the script plays to director Randal Kleiser’s strength, which is a sensitivity and conviction in depicting young people in relation to one another and to their parents.

Whereas its plot may be derivative--and at several junctures, unconvincing--"Flight of the Navigator” nevertheless manages to develop considerable humor and poignancy from David’s predicament and what he does about it.

“Flight of the Navigator” is also buoyant as well as handsome, never weighed down by ponderous hardware or marred by cut-rate effects. But for all its first-rate cinematography by James Glennon and its imaginative design by William J. Creber (aided by a team of artists and technicians, including the wizards at Omnibus Computer Graphics), the film has as its biggest plus its entirely believable, normal American family.

Bright, sturdy Joey Cramer is a winner as David. Veronica Cartwright and Cliff De Young are just right as his understandably baffled parents, as are Albie Whitaker and Matt Adler, who play David’s brother at 8 and 16, respectively. Howard Hesseman has a thankless role as the film’s not exactly sympathetic man from NASA--this scientist’s insistence upon separating David from his family is as inexplicable as his inability to have the boy properly guarded. (The film benefits from the disenchantment with NASA in the wake of the Challenger tragedy.)


While welcoming Disney’s hits in its new Touchstone division, “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Ruthless People,” it’s good to see in “Flight of the Navigator” (rated PG, but G would seem more appropriate) Disney continuing its tradition of family entertainment.