Disney+ TV review: The Rocketeer (Disney Junior)
Animation and songs6.5
Matthew Turner | On 01, Nov 2020
“Helmet, on. Rocket pack, secure. Avionics, check. Clear to Rocketeer!” Those are the words from the transformation sequence that appears in every episode of Disney Junior’s The Rocketeer. An affectionate and surprisingly faithful sequel-slash-reboot, the series consists of 43 13-minute episodes (aired in 21 blocks of two, plus one double-length Christmas episode) and is primarily aimed at young children. However, if you’re a fan of either the original comic book by Dave Stevens or the 1991 movie, there are a number of little touches that make this worth checking out.
Set in present-day Hughesville – a reference to Howard Hughes, the inventor of the rocket-pack in the movie – the series centres on flight-obsessed Katherine “Kit” Secord (voiced by Kitana Turnbull), the great-granddaughter of Cliff Secord, the original Rocketeer (although she doesn’t know that yet). In Hughesville, the Rocketeer is an old-time local hero who saved their town and then mysteriously disappeared, his legacy commemorated by a large statue in the town square.
On her 7th birthday, Kit receives the Rocketeer’s helmet as an anonymous gift. Her mechanic grandfather Ambrose then gives her the rocket pack, telling her that long ago, his father instructed him to give the pack to whoever came to him with the helmet. After a few test flights and a tech upgrade from her electronic whizz-kid best friend Tesh (Callan Farris), Kit decides to become the new Rocketeer, keeping the townsfolk of Hughesville safe and foiling the schemes of various villains.
There are a number of connections to both the movie and the comic book, notably the bulldog-shaped Bulldog Cafe and the airfield where Kit’s father, Dave (named after creator Dave Stevens) works as a pilot. Similarly, the image of the original Rocketeer (golden helmet, tan coloured leather jacket) is faithfully recreated and appears in every episode, either in a flashback, or on constant display in the form of the statue, or paintings.
The connections don’t stop there, either. At least three characters are named after minor characters from the movie, and one of Kit’s adversaries is even descended from Neville Sinclair, the film’s villain who was played by Timothy Dalton. On top of that, Kit’s first official debut as the Rocketeer is identical to the movie, where she has to rescue her father from an out-of-control plane during an air show.
And then, of course, there’s the casting coup of actually getting original Rocketeer star Billy Campbell to voice both Kit’s father and Cliff Secord/the Rocketeer in flashback sequences. He doesn’t actually say all that much and probably recorded his lines for the entire series in one afternoon, but it’s a thoughtful touch all the same.
The animation itself is the standard computer-generated style that’s familiar from dozens of Disney Channel shows and popularised by things like Paw Patrol. However, a lot of effort has gone into the colourful design of the costumes, airplanes and other vehicles, which gives the show that little extra visual boost.
One of the reasons the shows are grouped together in pairs (they also aired that way on the Disney Channel) is that every other episode has an original song in it. These are mostly generic Disney Channel-type anthems, but one or two of them are quite catchy, especially the amusing theme song for Doctor Doodlebug, one of the main villains.
Some thought has gone into them too, particularly the bumbling duo Laura and Harley (Maria Bamford and Kari Wahlgren), a pair of thieving sisters who are, as their name suggests, modelled on Laurel and Hardy. Other recurring baddies include master of disguise Sylvester Slapdash (voiced by Futurama’s Maurice LaMarche), magician The Great Orsino (Charlie Adler) and the afore-mentioned genius inventor Doctor Doodlebug (Luca Padovan), whose robot pillbug armour comes equipped with a drily amusing AI called Newton (D.C. Douglas). Basically he’s Iron Man, reimagined as a junior school kid.
In fairness, most of the episodes are more or less the same, but there are a few stand-outs, particularly episodes that touch on the Rocketeer himself, such as Scarlett’s Search (featuring Annie Potts as Kit’s Aunt Scarlett) and Rocketeer Day, where everyone belatedly learns the blatantly obvious, that Kit’s great-grandfather, flying ace Cliff Secord, was indeed the original Rocketeer. (It’s bizarre that this also seems to be news to Ambrose, but never mind.) There’s also the occasional episode that’s head and shoulders above the rest, such as the surprisingly touching Songbird Soars Again, which features Kit persuading a reclusive former stunt pilot and wing-walker (voiced by Phylicia Rashad) to rediscover her love of flying.
The voicework is pretty decent for a show aimed mainly at very young children, and the scripts usually contain a handful lines that are as funny for adults as they are for kids. One unexpected bonus in that regard is that D’Arcy Carden (The Good Place’s Janet) gets to play yet another comedy robot as a self-flying plane Ava, and she plays it more or less the same way, to strong comic effect.
The show also deserves points for the way it casually deploys its diverse cast. The messaging is extremely positive, with most episodes imparting wisdom about the importance of listening, of working together and of heroism being about who you are, not what you wear.
Ultimately, while The Rocketeer isn’t the show it might have been (there’s certainly rich potential for a more grown-up version), it nonetheless offers extremely positive (if slightly irresponsible, given all the flying they do) role models and appropriate messages for young children, while ensuring that there’s just enough to keep adults entertained too. In other words, as Kit’s catchphrase goes: “Never fear, it’s the Rocketeer!”
The Rocketeer (2019) is available on Disney+, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription or a £59.99 yearly subscription.