"The Journey of Natty Gann" (selected theaters), which is well intentioned and seductively photographed, will presumably open the eyes of its young audiences to the Great Depression. What they will learn is that there was a period of American life when everybody--everybody--went about depressed. And surly. Heaven knows, surly.
But that was only part of the 1930s. You can also read letters of the time that suggest that, even in the face of privation, a good will, a brotherhood and a tenderness toward others persisted and carried people through those bitter days. Think of "Places in the Heart," set at just the same period; it managed to radiate these qualities from its very first seconds. Such humanism is missing from director Jeremy Kagan's view of "Natty Gann," which manages to be harsh, lugubrious and improbable at the same time as it is being handsomely scenic.
The first strain on our credulity comes as Chicago labor organizer Sol Gann (Ray Wise) and his 14-year-old daughter Natty (winning newcomer Meredith Salenger) must be wrenched apart. No separation, no Journey.
So, sore-as-a-boil Sol, surely the angriest, least charismatic leader labor ever produced, and one of the most thumpingly self-righteous ("I'm not a Red, I just fight for what I believe in"), is told he's a troublemaker and is fired. Jeanne Rosenberg's script leaves him a loophole, however. In all the land there's one job he might be suited for--in a lumber camp in the state of Washington, with a bus due to pull out any second.
Natty, left with only a note and fighting back the idea planted by their poisonous landlady (Lainie Kazan) that her daddy has abandoned her, sets off to find him. It's a journey full of hitched freights, hobo jungles, orphan homes and vindictive matrons, and even (in a Disney film!) wagering on a dogfight to the death, in which the bloody winner is a killer wolf. Since it is a Disney film, the wolf will shortly become Natty's furry chaperon.
The wolf's heroics aside, little of what Natty encounters is impossible: Roving bands of kids did crisscross the nation by rail as their fathers or older brothers disappeared from home. What makes "Natty Gann" such a stone drag is that it sentimentalizes the '30s visually while draining the period of either humanity or its own sardonic humor.
The film makers seem so intent that we know what tough times these were that everyone is sour and snarling. "The Sure Thing's" John Cusack, as a teen-ager slightly older than Natty--wise to the ways of the rails and on hand to provide a little puckery romance--is clenched and cross (the only other male who's even halfway decent is inexplicably maimed).
Grimness is pervasive; no one across the whole United States seems ever to have listened to Woody Guthrie or sung along with the biting derisiveness of the old IWW songs. (James Horner, the film's usually inventive composer, has apparently listened to Aaron Copland. Carefully.)
Throughout Natty's travails, young Meredith Salenger is straightforward and unaffected, with the promise of growing into an extraordinarily beautiful young woman. If she never quite sheds the look of a Hollywood waif, it's hardly her fault. (To conjure up what might have been, had realism been intended, think of Linda Manz in "Days of Heaven.") And the "wolf," actually a malamute/wolf mix, is splendid.
"Natty Gann" may have been created with the thought of giving young women a heroine to admire. Perhaps, to return to "Places in the Heart," the difference is between a film written out of a personal need to tell a particular story and one created as a "property," full of sure-fire elements that have worked in the past: a kid, a dog, a missing parent. The real missing element is heart.
'THE JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN' A Walt Disney Pictures presentation of a Lobell-Bergman Production, produced in association with Silver Screen Partners II. Producer Mike Lobell. Co-associate producer Les Kimber. Director Jeremy Kagan. Screenplay, associate producer Jeanne Rosenberg. Camera Dick Bush. Production design Paul Sylbert. Editor David Holden. Music James Horner. Costumes Albert Wolsky. Sound design Leslie Shatz. With Meredith Salenger, John Cusack, Ray Wise, Lainie Kazan, Scatman Crothers, Barry Miller, Verna Bloom, John Finnegan.
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested).