Directed by Jeremy Kagan
Original Score by James Horner
I'm sure parents who took their children to see Natty Gann, a film carrying the Disney label, were surprised and shocked to discover that it was not necessarily a film for younger children. Released in 1985, the film had no Computer Wearing Tennis shoes, no Worlds Greatest Athlete, No Invisible College Student, and no Barefoot Chimpanzee Executive. It is often a dark, realistic, and gritty film, set in the era of the Great Depression. At it's heart, it is a story of a young girl traveling across country to find her father, but it is also the story of people searching for hope and trying to survive in an age when just having food on the table was a daily struggle.
Natty Gann (Meredith Salenger) lives with her widower father, Sol (Ray Wise), in an apartment house located in Chicago and run by Connie (Lainie Kazan) during the Depression. Right away we learn how desperate the situation is for just about everybody as Director Jeremy Kagan focuses on the plight of the thousands hoping desperately for a days work, and others who know they are being hired dirt cheap at slave wages because the bosses know they have no choice but to accept what is offered.
While Sol looks for work, Natty wanders the streets of Chicago, making friends, picking up stray dogs, and just hanging out with her friends. One such friend is Sherman (Scatman Crothers), a street peddler, whom we meet as he tries to sell a woman a pot while she debates whether or not it is worth ten cents. When Natty offers him fifteen cents, the woman quickly changes her mind and gives Sherman the fifteen cents Natty had offered. The scene may seem unimportant on the surface, but it goes a long way into setting what will become the prevalent theme through out the film. No matter how dark things may be, no matter how much we may despair over our situation, as long as we have some amount of hope to cling to, whether its small or large, then we can retain our unrelenting will to survive. It is that strong desire to live on that makes us no different from any species on the planet, but it is the feeling of hope that sets us apart.
When Sol is offered a job in a logging camp in Washington, he is only given moments to come to a decision: Either take the job and leave Natty behind, or stay in Chicago with Natty and hopefully find work elsewhere. At first, rejecting the job offer, he steps forlornly out into the Chicago streets.
But outside, just as Sol does, we see the faces of all those who have little hope if any left. They have been beaten downward into an abyss of desperation which they may not survive once that last glimmer of hope is extinguished. It is after this brief but telling moment that Sol realizes, as we do, there is no decision to be debated over. If Sol, and Natty are to survive, then he has no choice but to accept the work in a Seattle lumber camp. Unable to find Natty, who is wandering the streets, Sol is reluctantly forced to leave her in the care of Connie.
But we are well aware that Natty has nothing but disdain for the overbearing Connie. The tension between the two of them brings things to a head, and after Natty overhears Connie reporting her as an abandoned child, she decides not to wait for her father to send for her, and begins an arduous journey across country to find him.
If ever there was a film that is a picture of contrasts it's this one. Early in the film we are given the harsh reality of depression era Chicago. Director Jeremy Kagan does not spare us from the details. We watch as men stand hopelessly and helplessly praying and hoping for work. There is a harsh scene where Natty witnesses a friend of hers and his family being evicted from their home.
Later, as Sol is heading to Washington in the bus, we see another family on the road with their meager belongings strapped to their car as they head west, their car no longer operable. When Natty walks through the market place vendors sell what meager items they have just to get buy on the nickels dimes and pennies they may or may not bring in. After Natty runs away we see her fishing for food out of a trash can for an edible morsel. Later, as she travels westward, there is beautifully photographed scenery of forests and mountains doubly emphasizing Natty's lonely quest, but Director Kagan astutely reminds us of the bleakness of the depression with many scenes of the struggle in rural America, ranging from a scene of a farmer and his much pregnant wife plowing a field to scenes of orphaned and abandoned children left to be wards of the state.
This is not your Daddy's Disney, nor your grandfather's. Dick Bush's cinematography of the wilderness is breathtaking, yet in the scenes set in Chicago and even in the farm towns of America, he mutes his colors to enhance the contrast between beauty and desperation. James Horner's score is also exceptionally brilliant, but Bush uses it only when the scene absolutely calls for it. For instance, in the early scenes in Chicago, it is not used at all.
When Natty jumps her first train, she is helped and befriended by Harry (John Cusack), who is also riding the rails. Cusack in his first major dramatic role after The Sure Thing, shows for the first time that he was not just a comedic actor, but had dramatic prowess as well. Harry may be very young, but Cusack gives him the edge of a man aged well beyond his years. His venture westward will make or break him.
The other star of this film is Wolf (played by the brilliantly trained Malamute-wolf mix Jed). In one of her stops Natty stumbles upon a building used for dog fights and it is a battle to the death. There can only be one survivor. When Wolf tries to escape, and there appears to be no exit, Natalie holds the door open for him. Later, Natty meets up again with Wolf when she tries to jump a train, but Wolf will have none of it. Natty chooses another box car. But in time, Wolf overcomes his suspicions, Natty overcomes her timidity, and they soon begin to depend on one another for their very survival.
Salenger, as Natty, is more than just a teenage actress plopped in here as the generic teenager. Her characterization draws us into the story from the first moments of this film to the last. It is the key that holds this film together and if it had been put into less capable hands the film would surely not have succeeded as well. Certainly she showed she had the ability to carry a film, the question is why she was never afforded the opportunity to do so later in her career.
There is no doubt though that Natty's quest to reunite with her father is a journey for the ages, and one you will not soon forget. And if you are a journey for the ages I have no choice but to give you a very well deserved A, with a Caveat.
In what may be the most remarkable live action film to come out of the Disney studios during the 80's or even the 70's for that matter, I find the treatment it has received from it's own studio appalling. The best thing I can compare it to is having a ruby but discarding it because you only prefer diamonds. Considering all the costume jewelry Disney released in the aforementioned decades, you would think they would have more respect for this outstanding gem.
The transfer of this wonderful film is appalling. It's bad enough when a film that shouts "wide screen" is only released in a very horrid poorly done pan and scan and cropped version, but the full screen transfer is one of the worst if not the worst I have ever seen. It gives new meaning to the word grainy. At times the picture jitters, something that is very apparent especially early in the films. There are signs of the film's age running rampant throughout and no visible effort to clean it up digitally or otherwise. I'm not one to believe every film should come with a boatload of extras, and have no problem if a studio wants to give us just the film, but there is absolutely no excuse for the poor picture quality of this DVD.
This movie is a gem, and for the Disney studios to tarnish it and treat it in this unconscionable manner, saddens me terribly. What is more frustrating is the fact that Disney can do quality video releases, so just a decent film to DVD wide screen transfer would not have been a lot to ask for. If you don't want to treat your merchandise with the care that it deserves, then sell the rights to a company who might such as Anchor Bay or Criterion. It's damn bad enough that you couldn't even find the film in print for many years as it was abandoned completely, but to release it on a DVD that isn't even upto par with VHS should rain shame on your Studio. If Walt were alive, I guarantee you that no Disney film, regardless of what some idiotic stupid studio head thought of the quality, would be released in the condition that this film was. Disney you deserve an F.
(Note: It was necessary for me to touch up and make some effort to improve the pictures in the review to make them appear better than they do on the DVD. Here are some actual screen captures presented in their original state)