The Journey of Natty Gann (1985)

20 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Is it a requirement in a lot of family films that a majority of side characters must be a jerk so that the nice, plucky protagonist can give us more reason to like and root for him/her? It seems like a common device in a lot of family films I’ve seen—people who won’t listen to reason and are very cruel to the young hero, and thus we root for escape so the journey can continue. Take Disney’s “The Journey of Natty Gann.” The main reason (or one of the main reasons) its plucky heroine, Natalie “Natty” Gann, runs away from home to travel cross-country in search of her father is that her caretaker who’s fed up with her calls an orphanage, reporting an “abandoned kid.” She does this despite already being told that Natty’s father will soon send for her! I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s low even by Disney-animated-villain standards. But Natty escapes her caretaker and sets off to find her father.

“The Journey of Natty Gann” is set during the Great Depression and begins in Chicago. People are out looking for work quick, and Natty’s widower father Sal (Ray Wise) is lucky enough to get himself a logging job. But there’s one major problem—the job is in Washington and his transport leaves very soon. Natty (Meredith Salenger) is playing with her friends at this time, and so Sal has to leave without saying goodbye. He leaves a message to her saying he will send for her as soon as he makes enough money, but until then, she is left in the care of a bad-tempered hotel caretaker (Lainie Kazan) who treats her like dirt. It’s all she and Natty can take from each other, so Natty decides to travel by railroad to the West Coast to be reunited with Sal.

Along the way, she is befriended by a wolf who accompanies her after she gives him food. The wolf in turn brings her a rabbit to eat when she is alone in the wilderness. The wolf becomes Natty’s protector and friend, defending her from vile, cruel people they come across (again, that aforementioned rule comes into place—there’s even a pedophile thrown in at one point for no reason other than the wolf has to protect Natty from him). But they do come across another companion later in the film—a teenage drifter named Harry (John Cusack) who joins them. He does this begrudgingly so, but he does prove to be a good guy to travel with.

We see more of Natty with the wolf than we do of her and Harry. He only appears at the beginning of her journey and then much later, he comes back into the film and accompanies her and the wolf until he must part. As moving as the scenes involving Natty and the wolf are, I have to admit I was kind of hoping for more of this relationship between Natty and Harry. True, their relationship isn’t quite romance-intended, and it seems more like a sibling relationship in the ways they both hate and like each other; but the human companionship and them trying to relate with one another and gain a friendship is very interesting, especially considering what Natty has already been through on her quest. Probably a personal complaint, but I just wish Natty and Harry had more screen time together. I liked this guy and I felt he was underused.

But like I said, the scenes with Natty and the wolf are moving and effective. The wolf is cute enough so that its moments on screen can cause people to say “aww.” And the girl-and-her-wolf angle works well in the girl-versus-nature element that comes midway through the film, as Natty is learning to survive after taking a detour through the woods.

“The Journey of Natty Gann” is a good-looking movie. The cinematography by Dick Bush is top-notch; the film looks remarkably like the period it’s set in; the railroad scenes are incredible; there’s a good sense of atmosphere. It’s just terrific to watch.

Another strength to the film is the leading performance by Meredith Salenger as Natty Gann. She portrays Natty as a girl who is suitably witty, appealingly spunky, sharp, sometimes standoffish, but doesn’t take “no” for an answer. She’s absolutely terrific here. The supporting cast includes a few that stand out—one is Cusack, who is very likable here; another is Ray Wise, who turns in a solid performance as Natty’s father whom the film catches up on from time to time; and Barry Miller who has a brief role as a quick-thinking street-smart would-be-entrepreneur that runs with a gang of young runaways.

Not everything about “The Journey of Natty Gann” works. The aforementioned “everyone’s-a-jerk” rule follows through with scenes that are rather painful to watch, including a character who gives Natty a ride and turns out to be a pedophile. That scene was just creepy and unnecessary. There’s also a dead-spot for me that I usually fast-forward through—it’s a 15-minute long sequence in which Natty is mistakenly tossed in a girls’ orphanage and has to escape. And sometimes, the film is a little too desperate for its audience to cheer. After a well-done adventurous scene in which the wolf must jump onto a moving train to join its human companions, the film does it again to try and make us cheer again. It didn’t quite work for me the second time. (But I’ll admit, I was glad he made it the first time—that was a terrific scene.)

However, the things that work in “The Journey of Natty Gann” work really well. It’s a nice cross-country adventure, it has a good, smart protagonist, and its setting is more than convincing. And it’s also interesting in that it’s Depression victims that are involved here, and for the most part, they act the way real Depression victims probably could have acted. Kids who see this film (though I’m not sure how many did, as this is one of Disney’s most overlooked, along with “Tex,” when it comes to their live-action films) might be fascinated by this portrait of the Depression Era and how these smart, independent young people learn to survive it. “The Journey of Natty Gann” is an entertaining, well-made journey indeed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: