The Journey of Natty Gann

December 19, 2012

journeyofnattyThe folks at Walt Disney Pictures have their fingers crossed: They’re banking on The Journey of Natty Gann to pull the studio out of a costly and humiliating slump.

The last Disney-produced feature to draw decent crowds was Splash; since then, it’s been a series of disasters: Baby… Secret of the Lost Legend, Return to Oz, The Black Cauldron. Those three were all expensive failures.

Natty Gann is a throwback to an old-fashioned adventure tale, featuring a youngster encountering danger, action, and friendship in the course of an extended escapade. It’s also a literal throwback—set in the past, in the depressed 1930s, against a backdrop of out-of-work drifters and disintegrating towns and cities.

A father-daughter team (Ray Wise and Meredith Salenger) are living a frugal life in Chicago when the father suddenly gets a job offer at a lumber mill near Seattle. He has to leave town immediately, and can’t find the daughter, Natty, so he leaves her in care of the landlady (Lainie Kazan) with a promise to send the girl along in a couple of weeks.

The landlady proves less than reliable, and when she makes plans to have the kid carted off to an orphanage, our heroine escapes her clutches by tying some old bedsheets and crawling out the window. Nice touch—what could be more reminiscent of a traditional adventure movie than the old bedsheets-out-the-window trick?

The girl starts hopping freights on her way west, and this accounts for most of the running time of the movie (as well it should); it’s all about the people and places she encounters on the road.

She gets caught in a train wreck, a reform school for orphans, and a cattle-rustling ring. Through it all she is accompanied by her trusty companion, a wolf she befriended (in this, the film gets perhaps a little too Disney).

If the outcome of this journey is never in doubt, it is nevertheless a pleasantly rendered quest. Jeremy Kagan’s direction is heavy on plush landscapes (shot in Canada), and the movie tends to be more pictorial than anything else.

Perhaps it tries to cover too much ground, because few of the experiences that Natty has linger in the mind. Even her most important encounter, with an experienced drifter (John Cusack), is too short on dramatic incident.

The time for that development might well have come out of the final 20 minutes, which are a drawn-out account of the girls’ discovery of her father once she hits Seattle. Jeanne Rosenberg’s screenplay comes close to shamelessness here, as the build-up to the reunion is milked for all it’s worth.

Fifteen-year-old Meredith Salenger, in her first movie role, gives Natty convincing life, and gives every evidence of being a tough little cookie. The film itself is a little softer than its heroine, but it doesn’t go mushy on you.

It ought to raise Disney’s respectability, but Natty Gann is not quite big enough and not quite good enough to break Disney out of its slump single-handed. An “A” for effort, but don’t look for it to be—if you’ll pardon the expression—a runaway hit.

First published in the Herald, October 9, 1985

Not too enthusiastic, although if this movie ever pops into my head, it usually generates a fond feeling. Probably because it has something to do with trains. Rosenberg scripted The Black Stallion not long before this. Jeremy Kagan is sometimes billed as Jeremy Paul Kagan, apparently at random. Unless there are two Kagans, like a whole Paul Thomas Anderson/Paul W.S. Anderson kind of thing.