Parents who took their children to see the Disney Film, The Journey of Natty Gann, were surprised and shocked to discover that it was not exactly what they had bargained for. Released in 1985, the film had no Computer Wearing Tennis shoes, no Worlds Greatest Athlete, No Invisible College Student, no Strongest Man in the World, and no Barefoot Chimpanzee Executive. Yep, Kurt Russell was not to be found.
The story goes that Walt Disney’s last words were “Kurt Russell.” I guess studio executives took that to mean they should release a long line of at best so-so movies, but that were mostly pretty lame before Kurt ran off to play baseball.
But for all any of us know, old Walt could have been trying to say, “Kurt Russell….whatever you do don’t put him in crap movies. He’s too good for that.” Yeah, we find out later that he was actually better, something studio executives would have known if they had bothered to watch Follow Me Boys for instance. But I’m way off the track here.It’s is a tale of losing hope because there is no more to be found. It is a tale of survival, in a decade where staying alive meant managing to somehow find a way to scrounge up a meal to ward off starvation for you and your family. It was a time where keeping your family together was a challenge, and keeping a roof over their head a victory.
What Ma and Pa Kettle and their enormous brood of young ones got instead of Russell was a dark and realistic film, set in the era of the Great Depression. At it's core, The Journey of Natty Gann may be a story of a young girl traveling across country to find her father, but it’s a film that cuts much deeper than what one would expect in a Disney film from that era.
It was a time when you may work one day, but not find employment for many days after that. And should one be lucky enough to be hired, you worked for pittance. The year is 1935. The place, Chicago, Illinois.
Natty Gann (Meredith Salenger) and her Father Sol (Ray Wise) live in a rooming house owned and operated by the voluptuous and boisterous Connie (Lainie Kazan) who seems to have more than just an affectionate eye for Sol. Raising a kid by yourself during the depression is a tough job. During the day, Sol walks the streets searching for work. Natty, out of necessity, is often left to fend for herself.
She wanders the streets of Chicago, making friends, picking up stray dogs, and sometimes just hanging out wherever the streets lead her. One friend is Sherman (Scatman Crothers), a street peddler. Other friends include Louie and Frankie.
Sol is viewed by some bosses as a troublemaker. He sees men who are starving being paid only a fraction of what they are worth, and often tries to rally the workers to stand up against the companies and the bosses.
When Sol is offered a job in Washington State as a lumberjack, he at first refuses. But when he looks around the streets of Chicago and sees nothing but despair, he knows that if he and Natty are to survive, he has no choice but to go.
Unable to find Natty and with the deadline for the bus departure fast approaching, he quickly pens her a letter and leaves her in the care of Connie, who has her own strange ideas on child discipline.
It doesn’t take long for Connie and the head strong independent Natty to butt heads. Thoughts of running away to find her father begin to surface, but Sherman does his best to discourage her.
Natty: Did you ever ride the rails, Sherman?
Sherman: What did you say girl?
Natty: You ever ride the rails?
Sherman: Girl, what are you thinking about?
Sherman: Good, because it’s hell out there on them rails. Fats Chessman got both of his legs chopped off under the iron wheel. Oklahoma Slim got a big scar on his throat where someone tried to cut him for his shoes. You can get your guts spilled out there if you don’t know what you’re doing. Do you understand? Do you understand?
When Natty is arrested for throwing tomatoes (along with many others) at cops who are forcefully evicting her friend Frankie and his family from their home, Connie reports Natty as an abandoned child, leaving Natty no choice but to sneak away during the night and head out on her own.
The journey does not begin well. In her first attempt to hop onto a freight train, she nearly falls underneath and is only saved after being pulled to safety by Harry (John Cusack), a harmonica playing rail rider making his way to California. They quickly part ways the next morning without exactly becoming bosom buddies.
Unaware that Natty is now out on her own doing a teenage version of King of the Road, Sol pens another letter to Natty and includes a train ticket for her so that she can actually ride a train in the manner it was made for. But, it’s a letter the postman will never deliver.
In one railroad yard building, Natty finds herself in the midst of a crowd of behemoths wagering on dog fights. In particular, one Wolf (Played by Jed) and one Great Dane (possibly a Doberman. You’ve seen one nasty assed big dog you’ve seen them all. I’m not a damn Vet) are having a battle to the death. After killing his opponent, Wolf manages to escape thanks to an ever helpful Natty. Her reward? Being knocked flat on her ass and unconscious by the not too happy Dog owners. Or is that Wolf owner?
Later, the badly shaken Natty heads back to the railroad yard where she attempts to climb into what she believes to be an empty box car. And what do we have for our young contestant behind box car door number three! Why it’s Wolf! And Wolf is in no mood for visitors or friend making so Natty eases her way out of the car by backing up. She always goes backwards when backing up. It’s a good habit to get into.
Before leaving, she lays down some grub for the very hungry Wolf, who hasn’t had a good meal since the Doberman ear he devoured earlier.
Back in Washington, Sol calls Connie to see if Natty got her letter. He finds out that his daughter is missing, and tells his ex-landlord that she’s going to be an ex inhabitant of planet earth if she doesn’t see to it that his daughter is found. Or maybe it was just words to that effect and I’m embellishing a bit. I do that a lot.
In Colorado, the train Natty is riding in derails, and explodes. Natty narrowly escapes as does Wolf. But in so doing she accidentally leaves behind the leather keep case that normally holds a locket with pictures of her parents in.
Having to fend for one’s self in the Colorado wilderness isn’t easy for anybody, let alone a novice hiker like Natty. But Wolves apparently have memories like an elephant, and remembering Natty’s earlier kindness brings her some road kill….I mean wolf kill. It isn’t long before the two become the best of friends and dependent on one another for survival.
But having hope is one thing. Keeping it alive during the depression is quite another. After being told that Natty was probably killed in the train explosion, Sol blames himself for leaving her behind. As a form of self punishment he begins volunteering for the riskiest jobs in the logging camp.
Things don’t go much better for Natty and Wolf. In return for a meal, Natty offers to help a farmer and his very very pregnant wife (Verna Bloom, who had a much better time as Mrs. Wormer in Animal House). While plowing the fields, the woman collapses. She’s probably in her 30’s, but looks as if she’s in her fifties. The depression leaves its mark. When a fox attempts to make a meal of the farmer’s chickens, Wolf stops him but is shot at by the farmer who mistakes him as being the culprit.
In another town Natty takes refuge with some hoods in an effort to steal a bull. But things don’t go exactly as planned and she is arrested and sent to an orphanage.
Wolf is captured and caged. Later, having escaped, when she goes looking for him, she finds that there are still those left in the world with a sense of decency.
Eventually she’ll again hook up with Harry and the two become more than just acquaintances, developing a genuine affection for each other which enables them to aid one another in their survival. Oh, and wolf begins taking a liking to Harry as well.
Set in a different era, and filmed in a different decade it would have been easy for those involved to turn The Journey of Natty Gann into just another piece of Disney Fluff. It would have been rewritten as a by the numbers Disney family adventure and Kurt Russell would have played Nat instead of Natty. Or maybe he would have played Wolf. He’s a pretty good actor. But Wolf and Russell had met up elsewhere before he buddied up with Natty.
In the seventies and much of the eighties, Disney Studios weren’t exactly cranking out quality film fare. It is the eternal credit to every one involved with this film that it is and should be a classic in every sense of the word. It is to the discredit of Disney Studios and the powers that be that it is not. That it’s been mostly catalogued, shunned, and tossed aside like so much garbage.
Meredith Salenger is exceptional as Natty Gann. She gives us a young girl who is hard nosed, stubborn, willful, yet sympathetic and likable. It would have been a complicated role for an adult actor, but for a fifteen year old whose previous experience consisted of a lesser supporting role in Annie, it’s amazing. Tatum O’Neal may have won an Oscar at 10 for Paper Moon, likewise Anna Paquin at age eleven for The Piano. But for my money, what Salenger does as Natty is just as remarkable, maybe more so. But that’s what happens when you’re in a film that doesn’t have a satchel full of Oscar nominations or you’re not playing opposite your famous papa. (Trivia Note: Salenger would played a character in the remake, Race to Witch Mountain. The character’s name: Natalie Gann.”
Ray Wise as Sol is no slouch either. If you’ve been a fan of How I Met Your Mother over the years, you’ll recognize him as Robin Scherbatsky, Senior, the father of Ted Mosby’s series long crush, Robin Scherbatsky. It is a role originated by Eric Braeden in 2008 but taken over by Wise in 2011. (Technically, Alan Thicke played the role in a minor appearance in an early episode.)
Sol is certainly far more complex than Robin Senior, who was on HIMYM as nothing more than a plot gimmick for Robin Jr. It is difficult to be both a father and a mother regardless of the circumstances, especially during the 30’s in a time when many kids were just abandoned by their parents.
Sol is a man torn between doing what he has to do so that both him and Natty can survive, while constantly worrying whether he is making the right choices. It is his love for Natty and the love he had for her mother that drives him.
Cusack underplays his role as Harry. And it’s perfect. Someone like Harry who has lived as he has had to live, and saw his father killed in front of him, would not be a man of many words.
He has been beaten down, but he will not give up until he has regained what every man desires: his dignity.
Having done comedies and romantic comedies up to this point in his career, The Journey of Natty Gann was a complete change of pace for Cusack, and though mostly a supporting role here, he proves that he would be bringing much more to the big screen beyond being a comedic actor or romantic lead. Cusack has never gotten the credit he deserves, and what he has brought to the screen on many occasions has been overlooked by Hollywood more often then not.
Wolf would go on later to do another film, White Fang (1991 and another DVD given a shit release by Disney) and also White Fang II (1994) before passing away at the ripe old age of 18 in 1995.
Natty Gann was penned by Jeanne Rosenberg, and this is a woman who knows her stuff, having prepared for it by scripting the classic film The Black Stallion (1979). She would go on to pen White Fang (1991), a much underappreciated film of the 1990’s which unsurprisingly, also featured Jed.
It is to Rosenberg’s credit here that the Story of Natty and Wolf, while very compelling is just a small part of the engine that makes this film go. It is the dark world which these characters must confront every single day that lifts this film far above and beyond the usual paint by numbers human/animal adventure. Her script never flinches from the harsh realities of The Depression.
Director Jeremy Kagan, who also helmed The Big Fix and Heroes, treats the developing friendship between Natty and Wolf as if it is the most natural thing in the world, thus leaving him free to create his canvas in which their journey takes place.
Originally slated to have a soundtrack penned by Elmer Bernstein, it was eventually rejected for a score by James Horner. I have listened to excerpts from the Bernstein piece (it is also used in the trailer. see below), and I pretty much agree with the switcheroo. Bernstein’s musical orchestration was rowdy and boisterous as if it were written for one of the Henry Hathaway Westerns such as True Grit or The Sons of Katie Elder. Don’t get me wrong as I do love Bernstein, and the Natty Gann score as a stand alone is certainly worth listening to. Even more so if you’re a collector. But then again, maybe it’s just the fact that I’ve seen this film so many times and anything else just seems out of place which is what happens when something becomes ingrained in your consciousness.
Horner’s score does not often overwhelm. Other than the opening credits and in scenes which take place in the wilderness, it’s has moments of subtlety and beauty. You can judge for yourself by going to this YouTube Playlist and giving a listen or you can use software to download it. Or just play the youtube video below until it’s no longer working. Want to purchase the album legitimately? Forget it. It’s $45 at Amazon as a starting point. If you are counting on a re-release, you’ll grow pretty damn old waiting.
The cinematography of Dick Bush is a study in contrasts. In the Chicago scenes, the scenes in the railroad yards and the towns that encompass the landscape, he keeps his colors muted, often dark. It is not supposed to be a happy picture. Yet, in the wilderness and in the Washington State lumbercamp, he often photographs both Sol and Natty against a vast expansive landscape, to not only emphasize their lonely desperation, but also how great the distance is that separates them. It is breathtaking……or I should say it would be breathtaking if you could actually view it. I have seen it but no thanks to Disney. Chances are, if you live in the United States you don’t have that ability to do so either.
Disney’s treatment of this film over the years is almost criminal in nature.
Instead of offering up this great film as something to be proud of, Disney chose to relegate it to the trash heap as a catalog title with a one of the shittiest DVD releases I’ve ever had the dishonor to own. It is so poor in fact, that it makes the old VHS release look almost pristine by comparison.
Certainly Walt and Roy would have been appaled. But that Disney ceased to exist years ago, taken over by corporate suits and their slide rules with calculator accessory. Terrible enough that they decided to release this widescreen film (aspect ratio 2.35:1) not only in pan and scan, but one so shabbily done it almost defies description.
And it is beyond abysmal. And unwarranted because overseas, at least in the UK, they were treated to an actual widescreen release where one can see Dick Bush’s Photography in all its glory.
Apparently whoever was in charge of distribution back in 2002, decided that Americans were too stupid and ignorant to know the difference between a quality film transfer and one that looks like it was ripped from a worn out VHS tape and recorded at SLP speed (for those who can’t remember that’s Super Long Play, the lowest quality recording speed.) I say this because inexplicably, in the UK and elsewhere, they were treated to a wide screen release in all its glory. The question is why? Don’t expect an answer rather than what I gave you about being able to pass of crap merchandise on Americans who seem willing to accept any old inferior product. And with the advent of High Definition flat screen, it makes the product look that much worse.
Disney had the advantage of releasing this film on DVD back in 2004, when the market was just then gaining a foothole. Release something in this condition these days, especially of a quality film, and there would be a shitstorm of epic proportions. But even then, the criticisms of this release are all over the place. But Disney has chosen to ignore the voices over the years and ignore this film with them.
It’s bad enough that it’s pan and scan, but what is on the DVD is often blurry, details are completely lost, and at times it’s almost unwatchable at all. Actors are kept completely out of frame, which may not quite be as bad as in long shots where they are hardly visible in the blur.
Whoever was responsible for this travesty should have been taken to the woodshed. On the other hand, it’s just another great example of how Corporations, in this case Disney, really don’t give a shit about what product they are pushing out the door onto unwary consumers.
There was never more evidence of the fact that in 12 years, they have ignored review after review after review calling them out for what many of us perceive as a major failure and a slap in the fact to those who view films such as this to be a work of art. Film preservation?
How often have we heard about that? How can I care if the companies that own these treasures look at them with nothing but a calculator, so that years later they can tell us about how so much of our cinematic history is lost to the ages. With attitudes like this (and Disney isn’t the only one. Yes, Fox, I’m looking at you. I got a few bones to pick with you very very soon), and with billion dollar companies whining about having to spend a few bucks of their own for film preservation, it starts to become a joke.
Yeah, they can redo their animated features for the umpteenth time. But Disney has a whole vault full of other feature films and TV episodes from Wonderful World of Disney that are no doubt disintegrating into dust as I type. And those that do find their way to the market, are sometimes as bad as this DVD, and often worse. I purchased a copy of Sammy, the Way Out Seal from their club and the transfer was grainy, filled with artifacts, and faded colors on top of everything else.
Think I’m joking? I am not. Someone put about ten minutes of the European release of Journey of Natty Gann on YouTube
Even in the opening frame, it’s apparent that you just spent your money on a DVD that belongs more in the toilet then in a DVD or Blu-ray player. (Don’t put it in a blu-ray player. The up-conversion only magnifies the crappiness of the DVD.)
On the U.S. DVD release we see this as the opening shot
In order to get Sol and Natty into the frame, the camera is forced to pan over to the right and then we see this:
In the UK version, this is the way the film opens.
Occasionally Disney will release some of these titles by slapping old VHS scans on a DVD and releasing it through their club. Or they’ll make exclusives out of shows like Zorro that you can only get with Disney points. Or, they’ll push out limited tin can editions at a premium price. The problem with that is when they are gone and having been bought up by third party sellers on Amazon and Ebay, those people can charge exorbitant sums for them because shlubs like us didn’t have the funds to get all of them when they were released. The Walt Disney Presents Annette tin I purchased for $30 a while back now goes for $149 new on Amazon. And then they have the nerve to whine about people who use torrents?
In the US version, Natty lights up a smoke for her friend Louie.
In the UK, she lights it up for Louie and Frankie.
Compare these two shots of what Sol sees looking downward as he works his job as a tree topper. The first shot from the U.S. release, would have you believe he’s not up all that high. Compare it to the widescreen version and the distance to the ground becomes breathtaking. Also notice how blurry the images are on the 4:3 frame as compared to the clarity on the 2.35:1 frame.
So here are some more selected shot by shot comparisons as well. The fact is, I don’t know why the decision was made back in 2004 to take this great Disney Film, easily the best film in their vault from the 80’s and possibly the 70’s and 80’s combined, and to throw this horrendous crap on the marketplace and ignore it completely afterwards. I’ve given some reasons, but it all comes back to the same thing: they decided that in 2003 the public wouldn’t care and they could probably save a buck somehow. And maybe in 2003, they were right.
But here it is over ten years later. It’s a mistake that could easily be corrected. Obviously the widescreen scans are readily available since they were released in the U.K. Are they on Netflix, which just signed a new contract with Disney for much of their archives? Nope.
How about Amazon digital? Nope, still this same old piece of crap.
And what galls me is that much of their catalogue titles and shows from the World of Disney remain locked up as well, not even available anywhere. Netflix signed a big contract but they sure aren’t getting much bang for their buck. Certainly this film should be on there, but I imagine Disney is too cheap or lazy or too something to make the widescreen used in Europe available. You would have thought that since the widescreen scan is out there, they would make it available here. But no, they think you and I are too stupid to understand the difference, and that they still haven’t invented HD flat screen TV’s as of yet. TV’s which, btw, only magnify the pro blem.
The Journey of Natty Gann is easily an A movie, and one any studio should be proud of. It’s just too bad it wasn’t an animated feature. We’d already have seen three or four re-releases and on blu-ray by now because it’s becoming apparent that beyond that, Disney suits are like several other studio executives hoarding film in their vaults until it’s beyond recovery or in such terrible shape it isn’t worth releasing.
There are third party companies who are willing to release some of these films. Surely Netflix and Amazon would be open to streaming them. And there are companies like Twilight Time, Criterion or Olive Films releasing many titles on blu-ray. One would think this film would be a prime candidate for Criterion, who specializes in obscure films that may not have been treated well over the years.
So why leave them to decay and become either unrecognizable or left in a condition that makes them unrecoverable? Why not pull some of those old World of Disney programs of which there are many and at the very least let Netflix or Amazon or somebody have a go at them so not only that they can be appreciated not only while an audience for the material still exists, but to hopefully find a new audience. What the hell are you thinking, Disney?
So the next time the AFI talks or asks for donations for film preservation, keep in mind who is really destroying our film history. Studios have the money and the means, but some shamefully some choose not to use it (there are some exceptions, Warner for instance does an exceptional job with their archived films. They should get one of those special Oscars). Here are some more shot by shot comparisons. And no, you haven’t heard the last from me on this subject. Not by a long shot. Again, the movie gets an A from me. But Disney has truly failed in their handling of this wonderful film.
And underneath the photographic comparisons are some related Amazon ads. Please help me by turning off Ad-block and at least having a look. I appreciate it. It takes many many hours for me to put together one in depth essay such as this.
With Meredith Salenger:
With Ray Wise:
With John Cusack: