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The Rocketeer Blu-ray Disc Review

The Rocketeer (1991) movie poster The Rocketeer

Theatrical Release: June 21, 1991 / Running Time: 109 Minutes / Rating: PG / Songs List

Director: Joe Johnston / Writers: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo (story & screenplay); William Dear (story); Dave Stevens (graphic novel The Rocketeer)

Cast: Bill Campbell (Cliff Secord/The Rocketeer), Jennifer Connelly (Jenny Blake), Alan Arkin (A. Peevy Peabody), Timothy Dalton (Neville Sinclair), Paul Sorvino (Eddie Valentine), Terry O'Quinn (Howard Hughes), Ed Lauter (Fitch), James Handy (Wooly), Tiny Ron (Lothar), Robert Guy Miranda (Spanish Johnny), John Lavachielli (Rusty), Jon Polito (Bigelow), Eddie Jones (Malcolm), William Sanderson (Skeets), Don Pugsley (Goose), Nada Despotovich (Irma), Margo Martindale (Millie), America Martin (Patsy), Max Grodιnchik (Wilmer), Michael Milhoan (Jeff), Daniel O'Shea (Mike), Joseph D'Angerio (Stevie), Clint Howard (Monk),

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Disney's biggest moneymaker of 1989 was Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, the directorial debut of longtime George Lucas and Steven Spielberg associate Joe Johnston. Blending comedy, science fiction, and adventure, that film was only the fourth in company history to earn $100 million at the box office and it was the first to do it carrying the Disney name.
A year later, Touchstone release Dick Tracy became the sixth to pass the $100 M mark, doing so on its way to ample awards recognition.

Those two movies seemed to set a model of success for The Rocketeer, which was given the same prime mid-June opening in 1991. Like Dick Tracy, this was based on comics and set in the past. Like Honey, it was directed by Joe Johnston, a man who knew visual effects, having been a leading member of Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) team.

Where Dick Tracy had a legacy of nearly sixty years of thwarting crime in newspapers, comic books, and radio and film serials, The Rocketeer had less recognizable origins. The character was introduced by Dave Stevens in 1982, appearing as a secondary attraction in the first issue of Pacific Comics' Starslayer series. Stevens developed the Rocketeer, an homage to 1930s Saturday matinee heroes, in a series of his own. But neither the creator nor his creation were household names by 1991, nor, in contrast to the clout Hollywood legend Warren Beatty had as the star and director of Dick Tracy, was leading man Bill Campbell. The 31-year-old Campbell had some TV credits to his name, most notably the two-season NBC drama "Crime Story", but was still cast out of relative obscurity.

In a box on the back of a biplane, the jet pack is found. In a tight place financially, Peevy (Alan Arkin) and Cliff (Billy Campbell) have no choice but to place their faith in the found jet pack.

Campbell plays Cliff Secord, a spirited but unaccomplished stunt pilot in 1938 Los Angeles. On a test flight, Cliff gets caught in the crossfire of an FBI chase of mobsters. Cliff's plane is destroyed in the explosive melee, but when the dust has settled, the pilot and his loyal mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin) have in their possessions a mysterious and exciting jet pack. The top-secret device is the invention of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes (Terry O'Quinn, best known as John Locke on "Lost"), who, dissatisfied with the results, refused to turn the plans over to the government.

The prototype had been stolen by criminals headed by mob boss Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino), who were looking to acquire the rocket pack for Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), the #3 box office star in America. The Errol Flynn-ish mustachioed swashbuckler, secretly a Nazi spy, is obsessed with obtaining the device. Sinclair's ears perk up when they hear the jet pack being described to Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly), a freshly-fired extra on his movie and the girlfriend of Cliff Secord.

After some tests and tinkering, Cliff uses the jet pack for some showy heroics and instantly, anonymously makes headlines as "The Rocketeer." Valentine's gangsters, led by the Dick Tracy-esque thug Lothar (Tiny Ron), push to find the rocket's owner and anyone who stands in their way winds up dead.

Timothy Dalton sports a mustache as movie star Neville Sinclair, who quotes his films in his seduction of starlets. Transitioning from child acting to adult stardom, a 19/20-year-old Jennifer Connelly plays Cliff's girlfriend Jenny Blake, an aspiring actress whose look in the comic books was based on Bettie Page.

Though I rank the early-to-mid-1980s as the most daring era of live-action Disney filmmaking, for producing such dark, weird films as Something Wicked This Way Comes and Return to Oz,
this 1991 movie seems almost as far removed from today's non-animated Walt Disney Pictures output. It shouldn't be; between the PG-13 Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and the hard-PG National Treasure movies, producer Jerry Bruckheimer has brought danger, gunplay, and adult appeal to the studio's slate. But somehow The Rocketeer, which at least some movie posters assigned the less family-friendly Touchstone Pictures name to, is different from those highly profitable, boundary-pushing modern family films.

Johnston's film certainly seems less calculated, although there were some sequel ideas that vanished after the director's clashes with the studio and an underwhelming box office performance. The movie is also less taut and exciting than both National Treasure movies and at least the first two Pirates tales. It's kind of easy to see why, despite positive reviews, mass appeal eluded The Rocketeer. The film does seem better suited for adults than kids, on whom the Golden Age of Hollywood material and prominent Jennifer Connelly cleavage will likely be lost.

Johnston would make his next films at other studios, among them, The Pagemaster, Jumanji, October Sky, and Jurassic Park III. Though the director's career rebounded, those of screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo did not quite take off; the duo, whose first film was the sequel-spawning 1985 sci-fi flick Trancers, worked a little in action television (creating forgotten '90s series "Viper" and "The Sentinel"), and have since moved onto video games, where they still collaborate.

A modern viewing of The Rocketeer will likely surprise you with how many familiar actors it fits into its cast. Actors you'll know by face, if not name, like Jon Polito, Margo Martindale, William Sanderson, Ed Lauter, and Pat Crawford Brown, just keep turning up. There's a brief appearance by Clint Howard. For some reason, Melora Hardin, today best known as Michael Scott's boss and on-off love interest Jan Levinson(-Gould) from "The Office", sings two songs at a swank Hollywood lounge club.

The ILM visual effects, which even in those less competitive times didn't score an Oscar nomination (an award Terminator 2: Judgment Day no doubt handily won over Hook and Backdraft), show some sign of age -- namely a border of artifice around the Rocketeer's airborne derring-do -- but not too much. Today, this is a movie that is easier to moderately like than to love or dislike.

Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) and Cliff (Billy Campbell) face danger inside a zeppelin in the film's climax. Long before seven bald seasons of John Locke on "Lost", Terry O'Quinn played billionaire aviator Howard Hughes, the jet pack's inventor.

That makes it a little odd for The Rocketeer to be making its Blu-ray debut in advance of so many other more popular Disney films. On behalf of Disney fans everywhere, though, I welcome this release and hope it marks the beginning of the studio revisiting its live-action catalog, the largest and most mistreated component of its film library. Two explanations for this disc lie on the front cover. The first is a shrinkwrap sticker touting "From the Director of Captain America: The First Avenger", the latest and most thematically comparable of Johnston's films (and one Disney has reason to name-drop, as owner of Marvel Studios and distributor of the Captain's numerous upcoming films). The second is a banner proclaiming this the 20th Anniversary Edition, a milestone Disney just barely gets to accurately celebrate. Unfortunately, the promise of that moniker vanishes when you flip over the case, an issue I'll get to shortly.

Fun fact: The Rocketeer marks a directorial debut for Mark Dindal, who helmed the brief in-film Nazi invasion animation resembling Disney's real wartime cartoon shorts. Dindal would go on to direct The Emperor's New Groove and Chicken Little.

The Rocketeer Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.35:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Surround 2.0 (French)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French
Not Closed Captioned; Extra Subtitled
Release Date: December 13, 2011
Single-sided, single-layered disc (BD-25)
Suggested Retail Price: $26.50
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap
Still available on DVD ($14.99 SRP) and on VHS ($9.99 SRP)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Blu-ray presents The Rocketeer in its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Though its DVD did so as well, it was released back in 1999 when Disney had not yet realized the value of enhancing widescreen titles for today's standard 16:9 TV sets. So, not only did that disc have a fraction of 1080p resolution, it wasted some of what it had on black bars thicker than they needed to be. Knowing that and that this Blu-ray benefits from 12 years of remastering/authoring advances, it is no surprise that this new HD transfer blows away the dark, non-anamorphic presentation that previously stood as the movie's best.

Even being unfamiliar with the movie's previous release, you are sure to be wowed by the Blu-ray's amazing picture quality. The print is sharp and clean. Colors are vibrant, though, unlike Dick Tracy, the movie mutes them in accordance with its nostalgic setting. There are a few scattered instances of light grain, most notably in the diner scene. But by and large, the movie looks fantastic and should surpass even high expectations.

The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack is equally satisfying. The film narrowly predated the age of 5.1 channel soundtracks, although the DVD delivered such a remix misidentified as plain surround. I didn't have the DVD on hand to do a direct comparison, but between the very nature of lossless Blu-ray soundtracks and my audio remarks of my 8-year-old DVD review, I have every reason to believe that this too offers stark improvement. Volume levels were reasonably consistent. Dialogue only slightly lacked the crispness of today's movies. There is a good amount of dimensionality and channel separation, especially in scenes of gunfire. And James Horner's score, one of the film's strongest features, is nicely represented.

The title logo for "The Rocketeer" appears in the movie's blurry standard definition theatrical trailer. The Rocketeer takes off on the Blu-ray's menu montage.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The rear cover makes no mention of bonus features, touting only "Features Disney Enhanced High Definition Picture And Sound" (I love that "Disney Enhanced" is supposed to mean something) where extras would ordinarily be listed.
We do, however, get a single item: the film's original theatrical trailer (2:19), presented in blurry standard definition and windowboxed 1.33:1. That is the only supplement from the film's 1999 DVD and it's nice to get that here (a pleasant surprise, since it's not mentioned on the case).

To get only that here is much less nice. I think that makes this the weakest anniversary edition ever bestowed upon a film. Ignoring the fact that Billy Campbell probably would have been thrilled to record an audio commentary (if Joe Johnston wasn't, and he's at least patched things up with Disney enough to direct Hidalgo and, post-Marvel purchase, Captain America), what is especially troubling about this barebones disc is that there was a 22-minute making-of television special that the Disney Channel aired back in 1991 titled "Rocketeer: Excitement in the Air", touching upon the history of flight, Howard Hughes, real-life rocketeers, and the movie's special effects.

A Yahoo! search for that title presently brings up the IMDb entry for it, two of the three parts into which they are viewable on YouTube (and embedded below, for your enjoyment), and downloadable subtitles for the program. How hard could it have been for Disney to go into the archives, grab that special, and digitize it for what is sure to be the movie's only physical media release for a long time? Sure, it's kind of cheesy and promotional, but then what bonus features aren't, these days? The Rocketeer isn't a favorite of mine, but this just sets a lousy precedent for the studio. It'd be one thing if they were churning out a lot of catalog titles quickly and didn't have time or money to spend on obvious bonus features, but Disney has been ridiculously cautious at releasing anything that isn't new or one of their proven animated films on the format. Even if studies show that a good amount of people don't care about bonus features, who would dispute such an inclusion's increase to perceived value? Especially with the way that Disney and others go out of their way to present Blu-ray exclusives, the absence just doesn't makes sense to me.

The cool menu plays clips inside what slightly resembles an eye on The Rocketeer's helmet (I think it's supposed to be a cockpit or something). Though the disc doesn't support bookmarks, it does remember where you left off watching the movie in case you can't finish in one sitting. Besides, there are no ads or trailers prior to menu load, something which will spare the disc being dated. The disc is encoded to play in all three Blu-ray regions: A, B, and C.

Without other bonus features, Disney might as well have gone and advertised the full-color disc artwork as they did in the early days of no-frills DVDs. That disc is packed in a standard, slim, side-snapped Blu-ray case accompanied by a Disney Movie Rewards booklet and another promoting Blu-ray 3D and combo packs.

Come fly with the Rocketeer!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Rocketeer is a pretty decent movie; a tad corny, sure, but it remains appealing enough old-fashioned entertainment more in the style of the late '80s and early '90s than in the '30s serials it pays tribute to. Fans of the film should be pleased by the terrific feature presentation of its 20th Anniversary Edition, even if the stunning lack of bonus features betrays the pomp of that moniker. Fans of Disney at large might welcome this as hopefully the start of more of the studio's live-action movies releasing in hi-def (bring on Cool Runnings, but with extras please!), although sadly through the end of winter at least, this appears to be an isolated incident. While the price could be a little better and the disc definitely could be better, ultimately The Rocketeer has received a feature presentation that greatly surpasses that of its DVD.

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New: The Help • The Hangover Part II • Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas Special • The Smurfs
1991 Disney Movies: Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken • White Fang • Beauty and the Beast (Diamond Edition Blu-ray) • Father of the Bride
1991 Disney TV: Home Improvement: The Complete First Season • Dinosaurs: The Complete First and Second Seasons • Perfect Harmony
Billy Campbell: Ghost Town • Bram Stoker's Dracula | Jennifer Connelly: Labyrinth • He's Just Not That Into You • Dark Water • Inkheart
Timothy Dalton: Hot Fuzz • The Tourist • Toy Story 3 | Paul Sorvino: The Firm • Nixon • Kill the Irishman • Mr. 3000
Alan Arkin: Get Smart • The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause • The Last Unicorn • City Island
Directed by Joe Johnston: Captain America: The First Avenger | Art-Directed by Joe Johnston: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Early '90s Movies: The Mighty Ducks • Newsies • Captain America (1990) | Live-Action Disney Catalog Blu-rays: Tron
Pilots: Top Gun | Comic Book Heroes: The Spirit | Howard Hughes: The Hoax

The Rocketeer Songs List (in order of use): Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "Der Holle Rache", Queen of the Night's Aria", Artie Shaw & His Orchestra featuring Helen Forrest - "You're a Sweet Little Headache", Arnold Steck - "Drum Majorette", "Amboss Polka", Artie Shaw & His Orchestra - "Vilia", Melora Hardin - "Begin the Beguine", Artie Shaw & His Orchestra featuring Billie Holiday - "Any Old Time", "In a Sentimental Mood", Melora Hardin - "When Your Lover Has Gone", "Night and Day", "Easy to Love", Charles Williams - "Barrage", Artie Shaw & His Orchestra - "All Dressed Up and No Place to Go"

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Reviewed December 7, 2011.