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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 4/17/01

The Navigator: A Time-Travel Adventure
(a.k.a. The Navigator: A Mediaeval Odyssey)
1989 (2001) - Circle Films (Hen's Tooth Video)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

The Navigator: A Time-Travel Adventure Program Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C-/C+/F

Specs and Features

88 mins, PG, pan & scan (1.33:1), B&W and color, single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, animated film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (12 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: none

The second theatrical effort from director Vincent Ward (Map of the Human Heart, What Dreams May Come), The Navigator tells the story of a group of villagers in 14th Century England, who are struggling to cope with their fears as the Black Death sweeps across Europe. While no one in the village has been struck ill, infection from passing refugees (from already stricken cities) is a constant worry. What's worse, one of the villagers who's gone to investigate (Connor, played by Bruce Lyons) has been gone for weeks without word. Just as the villagers begin to fear the worst, Conner finally returns... but the news isn't good. It seems the plague is even worse than they thought, and Conner's seen horrors a plenty.

But all is not lost. For among the villagers is Conner's young friend, Griffin (Hamish McFarlane), a boy who has been experiencing strange visions that seem to predict the future. He's having dreams of a long and difficult journey through a cave and into a fantastic world. The villagers know of such a cave - one so deep that it's said to emerge on the other side of the world. They've also heard of a magnificent cathedral being built in this far away land. And so, to appease God in the hope that he'll spare the village, an intrepid party sets out, led by Connor and Griffin, to travel through this cave and offer the gift of a cross for the cathedral's spire. Little do they know that, when they make this hazardous journey underground, they'll emerge not only on the other side of the world... but in the 20th Century as well.

Despite its low budget look, The Navigator is a surprisingly inventive and original quasi-SciFi adventure. The production values remind me a great deal of a pair of Terry Gilliam films, Time Bandits and Jabberwocky, in that a lot of creativity is used to stretch a little money a long way. The Navigator's story is very simple, but great performances all around make it both believable and engaging. Lyons and McFarlane are both terrific in their roles, and Marshall Napier and Noel Appleby are also good as Searle and Ulf, a pair of brothers (one stout-hearted and the other bumbling, but well-meaning) who make the journey as well. There's plenty of good fish-out-of-water material when the travellers finally reach the modern world, but the beauty is that it's all treated just seriously enough to give the story a dark, dramatic edge (but not so seriously that you can't appreciate the humor of the situation either). The Navigator is one of those often overlooked, but classic, SciFi gems that I live for. It definitely merits the attention of a wider audience.

Sadly, while the film is now available on DVD, it hasn't been given the treatment it deserves. This new disc, by obscure label Hen's Tooth, is about as bare-bones as DVDs come these days. First of all, while the film was originally presented with a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1, what you get here is a cropped pan & scan. You can definitely see the crowding of the image in terms of action and framing. The video itself looks to have been mastered from an analog source tape - I'd bet it was 3/4" U-Matic. Heck, you can even see the tape hits, along with lots of analog color bleed, less-than-pleasing blacks, soft muddy detail and excessive digital artifacting. There's also film grain a plenty, but given the budget, I'm not surprised. That's forgivable. Hen's Tooth not even bothering to go back to the original source materials and release this film in its proper aspect ratio is not.

The audio side, at least, fares a little better. The sound is a run-of-the-mill Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix. It's actually not that bad, and manages to convey enough sense of space to be effective. Dialogue is mostly clear, which is important given that the thick accents often make understanding certain characters difficult (especially without subtitles - you'll find none here). There's even enough bass to get the job done - not much, but enough.

As for extras... there aren't any, unless you count some of the cheesiest quasi-film-themed animated menus screens I've ever seen. There's not even a trailer. The average DVD fan could probably have produced this DVD on their desktop PC in about an hour. Bleech.

Okay... so the film is great but the DVD's a turkey. What's a fan to do? Well... I recommend looking for a REALLY great sale price on this title. If you can find one, snap it up but quick. The Navigator is well worth the time and effort and, at least until someone like Image or Synapse can release a better edition, this disc as good as its gonna get.

Bill Hunt
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