- Vancouver, British Columbia - Admittedly, I've been sporadic with continuing my series of reviewing the films of my childhood, but a significant part of this is because it is not always easy to source these films. There are several more on my list to review before this series is complete, but this week, I came across The Rocketeer, which is a film that I watched far more times than any child should be permitted. I'm not entirely sure why I watched it so much, or if it was simply due to a limited supply of films that my parents allowed me to watch. Nevertheless, this film possesses some nostalgia for me, plus it was also a film that preceded the fame experienced by Alan Arkin, Jennifer Connelly and Terry O'Quinn, so it's interesting to look back on this film and see these actors before they were a part of the big time.
The Rocketeer tells the story of Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell), a stunt pilot who, with his trusty airplane mechanic/repairman, A. Peevy Peabody (Alan Arkin), have fallen on a bit of hard times due to accidentally getting caught in the middle of a FBI pursuit of suspected criminals, which renders their plane in need of severe repairs with no money to pay for them. Cliff's girlfriend, Jenny (Jennifer Connelly), meanwhile is an aspiring actress, attempting to land her big role in Hollywood with no one more incredible than famed actor Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), who unbeknownst to anyone appears to be a Nazi spy within the film industry. Cliff and Peevy, however, stumble across a mysterious rocket pack, which they view as a godsend to help them get back on their feet in stunt shows. Its appearance though is rather suspicious and draws the attention of the Feds and several criminal elements, none more importantly than those connected with Neville Sinclair, who has need for the rocket. Cliff and Peevy find that the rocket itself might not be worth the trouble since it puts everyone and everything that they know and love at risk.
In other reviews that I've read about this film, it is often referred to as a superhero film, but I suspect that this is largely because it is based off of a graphic novel written by Dave Stevens. Cliff Secord isn't really much of a superhero, but a man who finds himself in the middle of hostile criminal conflicts, while also coming into possession of a unit that can enable him to fly. He isn't particularly gifted in physical combat and through most of the film, he is seen running away from fights in which he has no business being. He is, however, well intentioned and seeks to protect those that he loves. He earns our support and sympathy, and we ultimately want him to come out on top, but to call him a superhero seems a little odd, especially since he isn't even that great at flying the rocket jet pack; and no, I'm not interested in getting into a Batman superhero status debate. Thanks for playing.
Joe Johnston directed this film, and if his name sounds familiar (it probably doesn't any more), it's because he recently directed Captain America: The First Avenger, as well as Disney's Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, in addition to Jumanji, Jurassic Park III, and Hidalgo. His resume also includes a lot of signification art direction contributions to both the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. Suffice to say, Johnston is pretty gifted at creating set pieces and atmospheres for his films that are immersive, even if the films themselves aren't that perfectly written or designed. He has a knack for period pieces by capturing the essence of those days, or at least what our collective memory recalls of them.
Another interesting element with The Rocketeer is the use of special effects in the film. Today, the effects look a little dated, but when they were executed, they were quite spectacular, and it is hard to not appreciate how they managed to film some of the scenes, particularly the one on top of the exploding Zeppelin. The make-up on Spanish Johnny (Robert Miranda) is a little excessive, though still somewhat effective in creating a hideous Nazi henchman, who resides in Hollywood. He is a beast and takes punishment just as well as he doles it out. As a child, I always enjoyed him even if I knew he was the bad guy. He doesn't exactly possess a great amount of depth or character development, but he is entertaining to see on the screen.
The story line of The Rocketeer feels a little simplistic, though that is okay, because it generally makes sense and doesn't demand us to suspend our disbelief beyond what one should be expected to for a film made for Disney. Thankfully though, it doesn't really feel like a Disney movie. It doesn't overly complicate the action or rely on an exhaustive explanation of the Nazis' evil plan for the rocket should they acquire it. We instead get a simple animation shown by Howard Hughes (Terry O'Quinn), which provides us with enough information.
The Rocketeer is a fun film, appropriate for most of the family, though there does seem to be a few not-so-subtle references to the robust bosom of Jennifer Connelly throughout the film. Nevertheless, it is entertaining and not particularly demanding, which can be a relief if you just want to watch a simple and charming film without having to probe too deeply on the inner workings of humanity. It is an easy story to stomach in which we know that the Nazis are bad and the Americans are the good guys. Some people may not enjoy this black and white morality, but it works for The Rocketeer. Sometimes I think it is good for kids to enjoy films that aren't so morally ambiguous. When they grow up, there will be more than enough time for them to consider the ambiguous nature of life. For now, let's just leave them to enjoy childhood and not spoil it for them.
Rating: 3.5/5 Sour Grapes