1991. George the First is in the White House, the U.S. bombs Iraqi forces in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm, and Boris Yeltsin wins the first free election in Russia. Phil Collins and Gloria Estefan are on the radio, “Silence of the Lambs” wins Best Picture, and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” is a box-office hit. Oh, and Joe Johnston (“Captain America: The First Avenger”) directs “The Rocketeer,” about a young pilot who ends up taking on a Nazi spy and his henchmen–which, for Johnston, at least, makes Captain America the second avenger.
“The Rocketeer” was a box-office disappointment, pulling in only $46.6 million domestically on a film that reportedly cost $40 million to make. It still isn’t on many people’s radar when you mention Disney films. For some reason, audiences didn’t take to this family adventure, which was based on a graphic novel by Dave Stevens.
I can’t imagine why.
Though the beginning is a little slow by today’s standards, “The Rocketeer” picks up speed in the second act and delivers romance, adventure, thrills, and a henchman that almost rivals Bond nemesis Jaws.” Tonally, it’s a cross between Disney’s wholesome live-action films and a very slight tongue-in-cheek version of the old serials from the ‘30s and ‘40s–though it’s not as playful as the Indiana Jones films. And it has a deliberate, old-fashioned vibe. Today’s viewers will also recognize similarities between this film and the “Back to the Future” franchise, with Billy Campbell (“The O.C.”) playing an All-American boy and Alan Arkin the older, slightly eccentric mentor/inventor. Campbell is Cliff, a barnstorming pilot who’s aerial wagon is hitched to a Gepetto-like inventor-designer of an aircraft they hope will enable the young pilot to win nationals.
But then he does something very un All-American. When their plane, on a wrong-place/wrong time test flight, is machine-gunned by bad guys as they flee federal agents, after things die down they notice a package one of the bad guys had hidden in the hangar: a rocket pack. Instead of returning it right away, Cliff proposes they figure out how to use it to make enough money to get another plane, by performing in air shows.
Jennifer Connelly (“A Beautiful Mind,” “Blood Diamond”) is appropriately wide-eyed and virginal as Cliff’s “girl,” a wannabe actress whose only jobs thus far have been little more than costumed window dressing. She dreams of Hollywood, he dreams of the stars. Neither of them imagines the adventure that will engulf them both–one which involves a Nazi spy ring, two sets of gangsters, the FBI, Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn, “Lost”), and a womanizing star (none other than former Bond Timothy Dalton) who threatens to come between them. Through it all there’s the same close relationship between Cliff and his father-figure mentor as there was between “Back to the Future”’s Marty McFly and Dr. Emmett Brown.
The special effects hold up surprisingly well for a film made 20 years ago, and there’s plenty of jetting around to add visual excitement. As for the acting, it’s right where Johnston wants it to be: a semi-serious throwback to a simpler time when people were either virtuous, or not.
Twenty years hasn’t done a thing to mar this film. “The Rocketeer” looks great in HD, brought to 50-gig Blu-ray disc via an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer that has no visible artifacts that I could see. They could be there, but the action is such that you just keep moving, and every now and then think about how great the picture looks. “The Rocketeer” is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and it features pleasingly saturated colors, accurate skin tones, and edge delineation that even holds up during the fireballs and special effects. Disney did a nice job with this title.
The featured audio is the standard English DTS-HD MA 5.1, which has a nice sonic weight to it. I wouldn’t call it immersive or dynamic, but it feels substantial and the subwoofer kicks into gear frequently during action sequences. Effects and dramatic music aren’t cued so loud that they drown out the dialogue, and the latter is clear and distortion-free. It certainly isn’t a demo to show people how good catalog titles can sound on Blu-ray, but it’s a solid-enough audio. Subtitles are in English SDH and French.
How can you have an anniversary without a party? All fans get with this edition is a full-frame trailer that’s half-hidden on the menu. Nothing more.
Watching the 20th anniversary edition of “The Rocketeer” confirms what I’ve long thought: “The Rocketeer” is one of Disney’s most underrated films. But I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why, unless it’s the absence of a big-name star. “The Rocketeer” is exciting, it’s fun, and it’s family-friendly–rated PG for “some material that might not be suitable for children.” That would be several faces of dead people, and some moments of peril involving shooting, explosions, and hand-to-hand fighting.