The film's producers initially sent the project to Walt Disney Pictures in 1984, but the studio was unable to approve it and it was sent to Producers Sales Organization, which made a deal with Disney to distribute it in the United States. It was partially shot in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Norway, it being a co-production with Norwegian company Viking Film.
On the night of July 4, 1978 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 12-year-old David Scott Freeman walks through the woods to pick up his 8-year-old younger brother Jeff from a friend's house when he accidentally falls into a ravine and is knocked unconscious. When he comes to, he discovers that 8 years have passed and the year is now 1986; while he has not aged at all, his parents are now middle-aged and Jeff is 16 years old. Meanwhile, an alien spaceship crashes through power lines and is promptly confiscated by NASA. David is taken to a hospital for tests where his brainwaves reveal images of the spaceship. Dr. Louis Faraday, who has been studying the spaceship since its arrival, persuades David to come to a NASA research facility for just 48 hours for extra tests, promising him that they can help him learn the truth about what happened to him. There, Faraday discovers that David's mind is filled with alien technical manuals and star charts covering expanses of the galaxy far exceeding anything humans have recorded. David's subconscious mind tells the scientists that he was taken to a planet called Phaelon, 560 light years away, in just over 4.4 hours. They realize that David has experienced severe time dilation as a result of having traveled faster than the speed of light, explaining why eight years have passed on Earth, but not for him. David is unable to comprehend what Faraday tells him and flees the room, leaving Faraday muttering that 48 hours will be insufficient to finish his investigation.
The next morning, following a telepathic communication from the ship, David secretly boards it and meets its robotic commander called "Trimaxion Drone Ship" (or "Max" for short), which refers to David as the "Navigator". After they escape from the facility, Max tells David that its mission was to travel across the galaxy, collect biological specimens, take them to Phaelon for analysis, and then return them to their homes. Phaelon's scientists discovered humans only use 10% of their brain and, as an experiment, filled the remainder of David's with miscellaneous information. This includes all of the star charts discovered by Phaelon's astronomers, some of which were shown to the NASA scientists during David's interrogation. Max then returned him to Earth, but did not take him back to his own time, having determined that a human would be unlikely to survive a trip back in time. Before leaving Earth, Max accidentally crashed the ship, erasing all the computer's star charts and data. Therefore, Max needs the information in David's brain to return home.
Max programs the ship for a mind transfer, and David is shown the eight remaining alien specimens on board, and bonds with a "Puckmaren", a tiny bat-like alien and sub-species of the Siyi genus, that is the last of his kind after a comet destroyed its planet. Max performs the mind transfer on David to reacquire the star charts, but in the process also contracts human emotional attributes, resulting in eccentric behavior. Max and David start bickering while their antics trigger several UFO reports in Tokyo and other cities. Meanwhile, NASA intern Carolyn McAdams contacts David's family and tells them about his escape in the ship; as a result, Faraday has the family confined to the house and Carolyn is sent back to the facility.
When the ship stops at a gas station in the Florida Keys, David calls Jeff and asks him to send a signal to locate the family's new home. Jeff sets off fireworks on the rooftop. David and Max arrive near the house, but NASA agents, having tracked the ship's every move, get there first. Fearing that he would be institutionalized for life if he remains in 1986, he orders Max to return him to 1978, regardless of the risk to his life. After the journey back in time, David wakes up in the ravine, walks home, and finds everything as he left it. During the Fourth of July celebration, he watches Max flash across the sky against the backdrop of fireworks while Jeff is surprised to see the Puckmaren in David's backpack.Joey Cramer as David Freeman
Paul Reubens (credited as "Paul Mall") as the voice of Max
Cliff DeYoung as Bill Freeman
Veronica Cartwright as Helen Freeman
Matt Adler as Jeff Freeman
Albie Whitaker plays eight-year-old Jeff Freeman
Sarah Jessica Parker as Carolyn McAdams
Howard Hesseman as Dr. Louis Faraday
Robert Small as Troy
Jonathan Sanger as Dr. Carr
Richard Liberty as Larry Howard
Iris Acker as Janet Howard
Raymond Forchion as Detective Banks
Keri Rogers as Jennifer Bradley
The Trimaxion Drone Ship was rendered in CGI by Omnibus Computer Animation, under the supervision of Jeff Kleiser, the brother of director Randal Kleiser.
The music score for the film was composed by Alan Silvestri. It is distinct from his other scores in being entirely electronically generated, using the Synclavier, one of the first digital multi-track recorders and samplers.
- Theme from "Flight of the Navigator"
- "Main Title"
- "The Ship Beckons"
- "David in the Woods"
- "Robot Romp"
- "Transporting the Ship"
- "Ship Drop"
- "Have to Help a Friend"
- "The Shadow Universe"
- "Star Dancing"
The film received mainly positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes rated it a fresh rating of 81% based on 27 reviews with the consensus: "Bolstered by impressive special effects and a charming performance from its young star, Flight of the Navigator holds up as a solidly entertaining bit of family-friendly sci-fi."
Kevin Thomas of the LA Times said its biggest plus was "its entirely believable, normal American family." The New York Times described it as "definitely a film most children can enjoy." People declared it "out-of-this-world fun." Empire gave it 3/5 stars, saying it was "well-made enough to keep the family happy, but it certainly won’t challenge them." Variety was more critical, announcing that "instead of creating an eye-opening panorama, Flight of the Navigator looks through the small end of the telescope." Dave Kehr gave it 3 stars and described it as "a new high for Disney."
In May 2009, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Disney was readying a remake of the film. Brad Copeland was writing the script and Mandeville partners David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman would serve as producers. In November 2012, Disney hired Safety Not Guaranteed's director Colin Trevorrow and writer/producer Derek Connolly to rewrite the script. Colin Trevorrow has since directed Jurassic World.