In 1935, Chicago, Illinois, motherless teen Natty Gann (Meredith Salenger, A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon) embarks on an arduous 2,000-mile trip to reunite with her father in Seattle, Washington, where he has found work. Natty’s travel buddies include a smart aleck vagabond (John Cusack, Say Anything) and a wolf.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“You’re a real woman of the world, kid.”
When I was a kid, I pretty much liked any Disney movie my parents put in front of me. And why not? The family-oriented studio was an expert at creating content to keep kids busy while parents did their daily house chores. Disney’s The Journey of Natty Gann is the kind of movie that I’m able to appreciate much more now as an adult.
Though written by Jeanne Rosenberg (The Black Stallion) in an episodic manner, The Journey of Natty Gann never loses focus and remains entertaining and engaging from beginning to end. Everything works like clockwork in this heartfelt Depression-era coming-of-age drama — it’s simple, yet complex at the same time.
While aimed mostly at teenagers, The Journey of Natty Gann doesn’t sugarcoat the harsh realities of life in the ’30s. The young heroine encounters all sorts of people. Some people are good, others are just plain bad. We see the courageous Natty overcome great obstacles, and learn from them. The film constantly pushes the kind of message young people need to hear more often: “struggle puts starch in your spine.”
Meredith Salenger is absolutely fabulous as the intrepid Natty. The old movie adage applies here: the camera is in love with Salenger. She is incredibly genuine and extremely relatable. There isn’t a single bad choice in Salenger’s characterization. It’s a pity that the movie didn’t make her a huge star: Salenger is the real deal.
Aside from Selenger’s excellent performance, another noticeable thing about The Journey of Natty Gann is its wonderful supporting cast. John Cusack is perfect as the cynical drifter who decides to help Natty. I was also impressed with the acting of the wolf-Alaskan Malamute, Jed, perhaps best remembered as the mysterious dog in John Carpenter’s horror classic The Thing (1982). I don’t know how they did it, but I swear you can tell what Jed is thinking at all times — eat your heart out, Lassie!
The funny and earthy Lainie Kazan (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) is appropriately unsympathetic as Natty’s irritating landlord. Scatman Crothers (Stanley Kubrick’s The Shinning), in his last theatrical movie, plays a street hustler. Verna Bloom (High Plains Drifter) has a poignant cameo as a pregnant farm woman. And prolific character actor Ray Wise (Leland Palmer in TV’s Twin Peaks) is all heart as Natty’s dad.
Along with the excellent work by the cast, I appreciated both the film’s painstaking recreation of America in the ’30s and Dick Bush’s (The Lair of the White Worm) muted but gorgeous camera work. James Horner’s (Braveheart) wistful music score is a plus too. Director Jeremy Kagan (The Big Fix) takes all these elements and stitches them together to create something that is touching without being corny.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Although it performed below expectations at the box office, The Journey of Natty Gann is, in my opinion, one of Disney’s best live-action movies of the ’80s. This movie is incredibly touching and appealing. There are some life lessons, but nothing too deep. It’s mostly a well-crafted coming-of-age saga with dark undertones. Grab the snacks and enjoy. Highly recommend! Color, 101 minutes, Rated PG.