Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Retro Review: Flying High with The Rocketeer

Two decades ago, one of Disney's better live-action films met with a severe case of audience apathy. It has since languished in unfortunate obscurity despite being an exceptionally well crafted period adventure and a loving homage to vintage movie serials and 1930s era pulp heroes.

The Rocketeer deserves to fly much, much higher.

I personally found the film to be very much in the tradition of early Disney live-action movies, though in setting, eras removed from the studio's 19th century adventure stories and swashbucklers.  I am always loathe to in any way channel the ghost of Walt Disney, but I think he would have approved of  The Rocketeer, if not necessarily the slightly edgier Dave Stevens' comic books upon which the movie was based.  Much in the way that Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson provided the boyhood nostalgia for Walt that he then successfully translated into motion pictures, the filmmakers behind The Rocketeer similarly tapped into the nostalgia of classic Hollywood B-movies and serials, and combined that inspiration with the new-found romance with aviation that was prevalent during the 1930s .  The result was an exciting and entertaining romp that was largely ignored by film-goers who, during that summer of 1991, were more enticed by the groundbreaking special effects of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and the comedy antics of Billy Crystal in City Slickers.

The Rocketeer was Joe Johnston's sophomore directing effort.  Johnston, a special effects veteran who had cut his teeth with George Lucas on the original Star Wars films, was fresh with success from directing Disney's own Honey I Shrunk the Kids when he was enlisted to helm The Rocketeer.  His special effects background served him well on the assignment and the film's pre-digital-era craftsmanship remains impressive to this day.  Johnston recently directed the excellent The Wolfman remake and is currently wrapping up work on the World Wat II-based Captain America: The First Avenger, set to arrive in theaters this summer.

Beyond its well-executed and fast paced storyline and capable cast, The Rocketeer is a visual cornucopia of 1930s popular culture and Hollywood archetypes.  Aviation pioneer and eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes plays a central role, while Errol Flynn is not so subtly channeled into the villainy of movie star Neville Sinclair, an undercover Nazi agent in pursuit of the jetpack that is the centerpiece of the film.  Also included in the mix is California Crazy architecture in the form of the  Bulldog Cafe; the over-the-top but rather accurate-for-the-era set design of the South Seas Club; the giant German dirigible Luxembourg; the film's climatic showdown at the Griffith Observatory; the true fate of the original and iconic Hollywoodland sign; and a brilliantly realized piece of animated Nazi propaganda showing squadrons of rocket-propelled German soldiers symbolically conquering Europe and North America.

One of the film's most notable components is the perfectly matched score by composer James Horner.  It was an Oscar-worthy effort that went almost entirely unrecognized at the time.  

Disney had intended The Rocketeer to be a trilogy of films, but the lackluster (but not entirely disastrous) box office returns quickly quashed further productions.  The film's troubled production history (screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo were fired and rehired several times during the movie's five years of development) and aforementioned box office did not endear it to studio execs, and it has subsequently faded from view.  A bare-bones DVD edition was released in 1999; a restored high definition Blu-Ray would certainly be welcome, but it doesn't appear to be on the company's radar at the moment. 

We will continue to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of The Rocketeer this week at 2719 Hyperion.  Check back tomorrow as we Consider the Source of the movie--the comic book stories of Dave Stevens.


Anonymous said...

One of my favorite Disney films of all time. Very few people that I mention it to have ever heard of it, but once they watch it, everyone loves it.

Nate Parrish said...

One of my favorites as well. Excellent post

Connie Moreno said...

Thanks for this post. I truly enjoyed the movie and think more people need to talk about it. I love seeing the miniature Rocketteer on one of the popcorn carts at Disneyland.

Dan D. said...

I'm trying to remember if I saw this originally in the theater, and I'm thinking I did, because I went right out and bought the soundtrack! I enjoy The Rocketeer segment of music during the Fountain of Nations show at Epcot and know, unfortunately, that not too many others know where that music comes from or how good the movie is. It is a gem.

John Rozum said...

The poster for the Rocketeer is, imo, the best designed movie poster of all time. The movie isn't too shabby either. The comic book series is coming back, but alas, without creator Dave Stevens

Andrew said...

Do you have a high-resolution file of that movie poster at the top of the post? I would love to have it, if so. Please let me know! Thanks so much!

Jeffrey Pepper said...

I found the poster image via a Google search.

Cory Gross said...

Great review of an unsung Disney film! I agree that The Rocketeer deserves better than it got, but I think it is partly to blame. I can't put my finger on exactly what, but something about it didn't quite seem to reach everything that the movie could have been. The same was true, more dramatically, of Island at the Top of the World, but Rocketeer shared that with a lot of those comic book films coming out in the wake of Batman, like Dick Tracy and The Shadow.

I also think that the general audience doesn't quite "get" retro-30's films that much. For me Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow really nailed the "it" that The Rocketeer doesn't quite get, and it also did poorly. I kind of suspect that Captain America won't be quite the success that Disney might hope for either.

Allen said...

Oh, btw, love your 20th Anniversary logo!

Linda said...

We saw a preview of The Rocketeer right before it was released, in the company of at least two dozen of our friends: science fiction fans and also nostalgia fans (many of them participate in radio theatre). We laughed, cheered, hissed the villains, and had a heck of a time while around us the movie critics sat stoney-faced. When the newspapers came out, the reviews were pretty bad. We read the reviews and wondered "Did they see the same movie we did?" I still want them to release a proper DVD; the resolution on the original and only DVD release is dreadful. What I really want is a Blu-Ray, but I suppose that's hoping for the moon (or a working rocket pack).

Anonymous said...

Loved "The Rocketeer" when I saw it in theatres that year. Sadly, it was the summer of "Terminator 2" and "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," and the Rocketeer just didn't fly as high as he should have.

The original film poster was a brilliant throwback to the Art Deco styles of the 1930's and so different from everything else that year.

You mention the sadly-neglected score by James Horner. Yes, it is a beautiful score, especially the main theme which plays over the titles. Horner liked it so much that he adapted the theme and won an Oscar for it for "Titanic." Listen, and you'll hear it. Horner is notorious for stealing from himself

The part of the female singer in the South Seas Club was played and sung by Melora Hardin, who has gone to more recent fame as the infamous Jan, girlfriend and boss of Steve Carrell's Michael Scott on "The Office." Her performances of "Begin the Beguine" and "When Your Lover Has Gone" are standouts.

Anonymous said...

The Rocketeer will be released on Blu-Ray in a 20th anniversary adition on October 31, 2011.