Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Journey of Natty Gann (1985) * * ¾

In 1935, 14 year-old Natty Gann (Meredith Salenger) lives in Chicago with her father Sol (Ray Wise) and her dog. She sneaks cigarettes in the bathroom, and gets into scuffles with the boys who are her friends. Natty is an old-fashioned tomboy heroine who is feisty and spunky. Her father, her one living parent leaves their Chicago home to work in the state of Washington at a logging job. He has to leave so quickly that there isn't time for him to say good-bye to Natty. With only an hour or so to get on the bus, he arranges with Connie (Lainie Kazan), the burly, bad-tempered landlady of the rooming house where he and Natty are living, to look after Natty until he can send for her. After overhearing Connie reporting her as an abandoned child, Natty is only temporarily daunted by this setback. She quickly takes matters into her own hands and runs away.

Sherman: Sol, you got no choice. It's a job.
Sol Gann: Yeah.
Sherman: Oh, no, Natty. (puppy yips in background) Do I look like an animal shelter?
Natty Gann: Don't worry, I'll keep this one.
Sherman: That's what you said the last time.

Natty hits the rails and heads west in a quest to find her father, and has many anecdotal bittersweet adventures. On her journey, she comes across all sorts of people, and very few are interested in helping her. Some of the cruel or kindly strangers she encounters take her in. There are many scenes of Natty barely making it through her scrapes as she rides in rail-road cars, backs of trucks, and hikes her way through the woods trying to find her way to Seattle. Her unpleasant encounters and various obstacles test her courage, perseverance, and ingenuity. She is tough enough to eat a wild rabbit for food, but still cringes when she has to gut it with her pocket knife. There are definitely some tense, scary moments on her journey. Natty's saving grace is that she finds parent figures along the way.

Logging Boss: What's the matter, Gann?
Sol Gann: They found my kid's wallet buried under a train in Colorado.
Logging Boss: Ah no.
Sol Gann: What the hell was she doing in Colorado?

To a great extent, this is a girl meets wolf love story, with some of the film's most satisfying moments being those between Natty and Wolf (Jed), the animal companion she encounters and befriends, and who quickly gives her his complete devotion and protection. They travel together for much of the movie. As Wolf, Jed the hybrid wolf (part dog) gives a brilliant and believable performance. Salenger is equally excellent, and she carries the movie nicely. Her scenes with Wolf are as moving as anything that takes place among the film's human characters.

Harry: Nice dog.
Natty Gann: It's a wolf. I'm cold.
Harry: Buck up kid, will ya?
Natty Gann: I'm bucking! (turns to Wolf) I'm bucking, right?
Harry: You're a real woman of the world, kid.
(Harry has just hauled Natty into the boxcar, where she was dangling dangerously over the edge)
Harry: You know, uh, you can get hurt that way.
Hobo: I thought that one was a goner. Rail meat. Little bits of blood and busted...
Harry: Leave the kid alone!
Natty Gann: You ain't seen Chicago, you ain't seen nothin'.
Harry: (opens the door to a barn, looks inside, then speaks to Natty) It looks safe. Come on. Come on! It's empty! Nothin' in here but a pig, and he sure don't care.

Louie: Shh. Hold your ears.
Natty Gann: What?
Louie: Don't listen.
Natty Gann: Don't be dumb. I've heard a man pee before.
Louie: Yeah? Where?
Natty Gann: None of your business.

She meets a farm wife (Verna Bloom), tough but nice juvenile delinquent Parker
(Barry Miller), and Harry (John Cusack) who similarly lost his own father years earlier and had to survive the harsh world of a drifter. The pair develop an innocent romantic attachment. Harry teaches her how to ride the rails and offers her his meager can of beans when she's hungry. Because of his fatherly kindness to Natty, it's a little off-putting when a romance blooms between the two. Harry's role is well acted and richly developed, but frustration comes from the misleading cover art and posters. The viewer would think that he's in almost every scene and carries the film with Meredith Salenger. Harry is half of this movie but still doesn't have enough screen time to warrant second billing above Natty's father or even the wolf. Still, Harry helps this film, keeping his fedora firmly in place with his small share of running, jumping and falling off of water towers. Meanwhile, her father has found out about Natty's disappearance and, seriously worried, sets out to look for her. There is genuine pathos in the final development of events.

THE JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN is a subtle road movie that captures the feel of the Depression era. The despair of the time looms over the entire movie, but equally present is a sense of hope in Natty's journey. It's not a perfect movie, but it's certainly an intelligent and thoughtful one, enjoyable but rather slow. NATTY GANN is both a period piece which captures the spirit of 1930's America and a coming-of-age adventure story for its title character. Though good-hearted it is relatively uninvolving, and the whole thing should probably be a good deal more wrenching than it feels. Granted, it follows the Disney formula but it has the cuts and scrapes from playing too close to the razor’s edge. It's rough around the edges and yet isn't a movie that you would be embarrassed to see with your kids. It's suitable for all audiences, but contains a little bit of strong language and a couple of mildly gory lumbering accidents.

The cast also includes: Scatman Crothers (Sherman), Bruce M. Fischer (Charlie Linfield), John Finnegan (Logging Boss), Jack Rader (Employment Agent), Matthew Faison (Buzz), Jordan Pratt (Frankie), Zachary Ansley (Louie), Campbell Lane (Chicago Moderator), Max Trumpower (Chicago Worker), Doug MacLeod (Chicago Worker), Gary Chalk (Chicago Worker), Dwight McFee (Chicago Worker), Peter Anderson (Unemployed Worker), Corliss M. Smith Jr. (Bus Driver), Hagan Beggs (Policeman), Ian Black (Hobo), Ray Michal (Hobo), Clint Rowe (Bullwhip), Frank C. Turner (Farmer), Jack Ackroyd (Grocery Clerk), Grant Heslov (Parker's Gang), Gary Riley (Parker's Gang), Scott Andersen (Parker's Gang), Ian Tracey (Parker's Gang), Jennifer Michas (Parker's Gang), Wally Marsh (Interrogator), Kaye Grieve (Matron), Hannah Cutrona (Twinky), Gabrielle Rose (Exercise Matron), Marie Klingenberg (Dormitory Matron), Stephen E. Miller (Guard), Robert Clothier (Railroad Official), Don S. Davis (Railroad Brakeman), Alex Diakun (Station Master), Tom Heaton (Railroad Deek), Harvey M. Miller (Railroad Deek), Sheelah Megill (Lady at Mill), Jeff Ramsey (Logging Driver), Gary Hendrickson (Logger), Wally Beeton (Logger), Doug Boyd (Logger), Bryan Couture (Logger), Al MacIntosh (Logger), Lorne LaRiviere (Logger), Bob Storms (Logger), Nancy-Rae Aaron (Girl Hobo), Rachael Clark (Destitute Child), David Paul Hewitt White (Unemployed worker), and hybrid wolf Jed (Wolf). James Horner composed the original music. Jeanne Rosenberg wrote the screenplay. Jeremy Kagan directed.

Music Tracklist:

01. Main Title (01:57)
02. Leaving (03:21)
03. Freight Train (02:45)
04. First Love (03:31)
05. Into Town (02:32)
06. Goodbye (02:22)
07. Rustling (03:07)
08. The Forest (02:01)
09. Early Morning (01:45)
10. Getting There (01:14)
11. Farewell (03:23)
12. Reunion – End Title (05:10)
13. Locked Up (03:12)
14. Hotel Escape (01:54)
15. Riding The Rails (01:29)
16. To Seattle (03:18)

On DVD you feel as if you're only seeing half the picture. And you are. Since THE JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN is a 2.35:1 widescreen film, and Disney has released it exclusively in Pan and Scan, the result is a loss of just under 50% of the image. The video quality on this DVD is horrible. It looks like an old, worn-out videocassette. The picture is extremely soft and grainy, and it feels as if the movie is about twice as old as it really is. Detail is awful, the entire video just feels soft and faded, like a dollar bill having been run in the washing machine. There are digital artefacts and other distracting flaws throughout, a number of framing problems that result from the pan and scan, and significant image loss. Furthermore, the wide photography of the images in nature that play a large role in the film's journey are rendered completely ineffective. You are constantly aware that the picture is heavily zoomed in and that you are missing much visual information.

It's a shame that the filmmakers spent time and effort to frame Natty Gann meticulously, only to have the movie drastically chopped up to fit the dimensions of a 4 x 3 television set. The quality of the film in general varies from crystal clear landscapes to grainy night and interior shots. Had Anchor Bay held onto the DVD release rights to this film that they once had, we would have undoubtedly seen a 2.35:1 widescreen transfer, and there is no way it could look as bad as the pan & scan transfer looks on this DVD. It's tragic that a great movie with some truly majestic outdoor photography and impressive set designs is released in a disappointing version. There's some hope that if this is ever released on Disney Blu-Ray that we'll get to see the non-cropped version of this for the first time in over 20 years.

Matching the video quality in terms of futility, the audio mix for THE JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN sounds like an old worn-out videocassette. The track sounds distant and lacks clarity throughout. It's almost as disappointing as the video. There are a number of instances where, if you haven't seen the movie before, you'll have to rewind to hear what was said. Either that, or there's the English subtitles which can decode some of the fuzzy dialogue. Like the other recent live-action catalogue Disney DVD releases, NATTY GANN has nothing in the way of extras. No trailer, no production notes, no making-of features, no cast and crew bios and notes. Absolutely barebones for this disc, which looks like it was made in the time it took to convert the laserdisc files to DVD. It has "rush job" written all over it. No effort was made to present the movie in a decent fashion. It's appalling that a DVD looking like this makes its way onto the market today.

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