James: Revisiting The Rocketeer

One of the most amazing things about Walt Disney World is that it really is a whole entire world condensed into 25,000 acres. You can never see every single thing in every single park, which is why I was flabbergasted when Stelle told me about a quick-service restaurant in Hollywood Studios called Peevy’s Polar Pipeline. I quickly asked her whether the restaurant was named after Peevy the mechanic from the 1991 popcorn flick, The Rocketeer. When she replied that she had never seen the movie, I knew it was fate intervening; I had loved The Rocketeer as a child, being 8 years old when it was released in 1991, but had not seen it since the days of VHS tapes. As soon as we got back home from our trip, we added it to the top of our Netflix queue and a few days later, The Rocketeer was gracing my television once again. So how did it hold up after 20 years?

The answer: surprisingly well. Now I know why I had such fond memories.

My initial thoughts after re-watching The Rocketeer is that it is an excellent example of classic Hollywood action, and is a perfect fit for the quasi-retro Hollywood feel of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The fact that a quick-service frozen drink shop is the only legitimate reference to this classic is truly a shame. Everything about the film screams classic Hollywood, tinted through rose-colored glasses. From the glitz and glamor of the South Seas Club, to the dusty Californian airfield populated by mechanics with names like Goose and Malcolm, to Fitch, the hard-nosed FBI agent who seems to be on a personal mission for J. Edgar Hoover himself. The Rocketeer is populated with characters who toe the line between comfortingly familiar and blatantly stereotypical. Take characters like Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino), the Italian mobster with a soft spot for patriotism, and Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), the famous and dashing action movie star who evokes the spirit of the great Errol Flynn. Even Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) makes an appearance as the inventor of the rocket pack prototype around which the film is based.

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So for those who have never seen it (shame on you), The Rocketeer tells the tale of young pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) who stumbles upon an experimental rocket pack after it is stolen from Howard Hughes. Unfortunately for Secord, Hughes isn’t the only one after the prized machine — a gang of hoodlums led by Valentine were hired by Sinclair to recover the pack for nefarious reasons, and Fitch the G-Man is hot on the trail as well. Once Secord discovers the true power of the rocket, he attempts to set things right with his beautiful girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) but winds up – of course – smack in the middle of all the action.

The plot points, while nothing miraculous, do a very serviceable job of tying together all the threads and keeping the audience entertained. The plot doesn’t try too hard to take itself seriously, as The Rocketeer knows that it is a summer popcorn flick and concentrates on entertaining you and immersing you in the world of Los Angeles circa 1938, where the first unsettling signs of Nazi Germany’s brutal ascent to power are showing in newsreels before Neville Sinclair’s latest romp. This is a world where guys like Eddie Valentine and Sinclair still have a firm hold on the public conscience, and the hopeful ideals and optimistic whimsy of the post-World War I era have not yet faded into the gray tones of the Depression and World War II. When the evil powers reveal themselves here, you can count on Cliff Secord to don an experimental jet pack and become The Rocketeer, flying high into the air to save the day and get the girl. In a way, The Rocketeer is almost like Captain America before there was a Captain America — the first true American superhero.

The overall plot may not be anything to write home about, but the symbolism, action, romance, and all the little details add up to a great and memorable experience. Moreover, The Rocketeer is a family-friendly action movie that everyone can enjoy; the violence is relatively mild and the more adult themes and narratives can easily fly over the heads of the littler ones (remember, I was 8 when I first saw this and now, 20 years later, I realized I missed an awful lot).

On my next visit to Hollywood Studios, I fully intend to stop in at Peevy’s Polar Pipeline to see the rocket pack and Secord’s helmet propped up on the wall. The fact that The Rocketeer is not mentioned or referenced anywhere else in the park is simply inexplicable (although if you have keen ears you may recall hearing the main orchestral theme being played as area music in the parks).

The common complaint about Hollywood Studios is that it’s a half-day park; if you find yourself with some extra time after your visit yet still want to soak in the ambiance of classic Hollywood, do yourself a favor and watch The Rocketeer. It’ll be like you never left!

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A book publicist who loves writing about Disney and books, and sometimes Disney books.

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