‘The Rocketeer’ — a retro adventure that was ahead of its time

Aug. 09, 2010 | 11:56 p.m.

“THE ROCKETEER,” 8 p.m. tonight, ArcLight Hollywood

Rocketeer poster

The Rocketeer was a valentine to the old movie serials but in a way, the 1991 Disney film was also ahead of its time.

“The Rocketeer” flies again Monday (Aug. 9) at the ArcLight Hollywood, one of three L.A.-area theaters now hosting a special month-long Disney screening series, and it’s especially timely considering the contemporary surge in superhero cinema and the connections to the Joe Johnston-directed film.

Johnston had come to “The Rocketeer” with a proven affinity for retro adventure — he had been the art director for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Right now, he is at work on a fourth Roosevelt-era adventure with “Captain America: The First Avenger,” which is due in theaters next summer and has some common ground with “Rocketeer.” In each story, for instance, a young man finds himself transformed by secret technology into a costumed hero who tangles with Nazis.

“The Rocketeer” faced some major headwinds during its theatrical run with competition from “T2: Terminator 2,” “City Slickers,” “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and “Backdraft” and the reviews were mixed for a film that had some sleek visuals and costumes but, in the view of many, lacked a needed edge in its storytelling. Janet Maslin in the New York Times, for instance, called it “a benign adventure saga that has attractive stars, elaborate gimmicks and nice production values — everything it needs except a personality of its own.”

I think the film actually had plenty of personality — especially in the supporting performances by the stunning Jennifer Connelly and the sly, rakish Timothy Dalton

… but the problem might be that it needed darker moments to balance out the buoyant humor and that was a direction that Disney didn’t want to go into at the time. If “Rocketeer” had been made with the sort of PG-13 mindset of the “Pirates of Caribbean” films, we might remember it as a signature moment for screen superheroes.

Rocketeer backpack

I thought back to “Rocketeer” while watching the “Iron Man” films. Jon Favreau’s hero jetted across the Southern California sky in films that were laced with aviation history, car culture and celebrity commentary — just like “Rocketeer.” But the real way that “Rocketeer” was ahead of its time was the faithful allegiance to the source material; the film was based on the comic books of the late, great Dave Stevens and the differences between the screen and the page were far, far less than those seen in, say, Tim Burton’sBatman” films or the “Superman” movies starring Christopher Reeve.

“The Rocketeer” and the other Disney films screening this month were keyed by D23, the paid-membership club that gives fans special access to Disney events and even the storied Walt Disney Archives. I talked to Rob Klein at the Disney Archives and he said the Rocketeer rocket pack is one of the great artifacts in the collection — the rare movie prop that looks as substantial and sleek in person as it does on the screen. He sent over a photo, too, which you can see on the right.

Klein said “Rocketeer” has a special place in film history and is probably more beloved now than it was the year it first took flight in the public consciousness. “The more you watch them the more you like them,” Klein said. “Some movies you see and you think, ‘Oh I love it,’ but when you go back there’s disappointment and you think, ‘I remember that being better.’ With ‘Rocketeer’ and so many Disney movies, it’s like wine, they get better with age.”

Love to hear from any readers that go to the ArcLight screening…

— Geoff Boucher



Captain America and friends

Johnston says his Captain America  is “not a flag-waver”

Captain America will be a USO performer in movie

New “Rocketeer” hardcover taps “spirited joy” of hero

Joe Johnston claws his way through ‘Wolfman’

‘Sgt. Rock’ film won’t be a WWII setting

The Disney archive, a history with a big future

Never-seen-before art from 1954’s “20,000 Leagues”

ESSAY: Berkeley Breathed’s ode to  “20,000 Leagues”

IMAGES: Walt Disney Co.

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9 Responses to ‘The Rocketeer’ — a retro adventure that was ahead of its time

  1. Bob Andelman says:

    'The Rocketeer' is one of my all-time favorite movies for its stylishness, its believably fallible hero and, of course, the luscious Jennifer Connelly. I always thought this under-rated and under-appreciated classic had weekly TV series written all over it. Wish the Tampa Theater here in Florida would show it on the big screen, too!

  2. Brett says:

    It seems inherently contradictory to decry the absence of "dark moments" from "The Rocketeer" while praising it for its adherence to its source material. Dave Stevens did not include any such dark moments in his stories. His stories really were a beautifully rendered throwback to the movies and pulp magazines of the 1930's. It was inspired of the filmmakers to substitute Howard Hughes for Doc Savage as the inventor of the rocket pack,and adding the Errol Flynn-esque Neville Sinclair as a villain was a nice touch, but that's as far as they needed to go in deviating from or adding to the original story. I personally was glad to see they included the nod to "Creeper" Rondo Hatton in the movie.

  3. The Rocketeer screening tonight at the Arclight was awesome. The audience talk beforehand by Rob Klein (The Disney archivist) and John, a D23 representative was funny and informative. Bonus, the film holds up surprisingly well!
    Bravo, Joe Johnston! I look forward to Captain America!!

  4. That statement is correct. The Rocketeer definitely was ahad of it's time, even with the qality of the special effects http://bit.ly/aJocm2 I still dust my dvd of it off every once in a while and give it a watch.

  5. matt says:

    I saw this movie on opening night of the remodeled El Capitan, it was the first movie shown there. There was a song and dance number before. Always loved that poster, I used to have it hanging above my bed.

  6. […] 20th anniversary of Disney’s serial-spirited adventure ”The Rocketeer” will be celebrated June 21 with a special screening and an exhibit of  props and costumes, […]

  7. Verbwank says:

    Saw it three times with three separate women when it came out. None of us were familiar with the comic. All loved the film. And the music score is sensational, one of the best compositions of movie music in a couple of decades.

  8. Craigs says:

    While there are a few things about the film I don't like, I think it is a great film. What makes it great is the story and editing – there is never a dull moment. The film moves along at a pace that is neither too fast nor too slow – I've never seen another film that keeps your interest the whole time like that – except for maybe Twister, but I think Rocketeer is better. The acting is great, the sets are great, the costumes are great, the music is great. Then, you've got the zeplin and the rocket pack itself. I was shocked when I heard it had poor reviews.

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