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A Test Case For The Family Film

October 19, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

One of the several consequences of television is that the all-ages motion picture--the family film--has become an endangered item. In fact it continues to slump toward extinction, reflecting the brutal truth of the marketplace, which says that what doesn't prosper doesn't get repeated.

It will accordingly be interesting to chart the fate of the new film from Disney, "The Journey of Natty Gann," the Jeremy Kagan-Jeanne Rosenberg fable of a young girl riding the rails from Chicago to Washington state during the Depression '30s to join her father, who's taken the only job he could find, in a lumber camp.

A fable it is, what with Natty Gann befriending a wolf (actually part wolf, part Alaskan malamute) that in turn befriends her and protects her from starvation and other perils.

It is indeed the Disney mixture as before, with some significant changes, notably that it is set not in the well-lit, antiseptic studio world of yesteryear but against an accurately re-created backdrop of hard times, evictions, bread lines and Hoovervilles (one of which is torched by vigilantes).

Rosenberg's story acknowledges the injustices of the world, its villains petty and grand. But what remains intact from Walt's day is a vision, Dickensian as well as Disneyan, of a world divided into good and evil. There is a singing of family values and parental love and the eruption of sudden, unexpected and warming kindness: the badly scarred mountain man who proves to be a saintly hermit, the clerk whose hard heart melts, the kid hobo who shares what little grub there is.

Once or twice the cup of human kindness runneth over. But far more often the trail-soiled tomboy honesty of Meredith Salenger, the intense Bogart-like appeal of Ray Wise as her father and Kagan's swift advance of the picaresque tale are likely to forestall squirming in the preteen audience.

And although it is dark and suspenseful, "The Journey of Natty Gann" is not incomprehensible to young viewers, as I thought "The Black Cauldron" was likely to be, nor nearly so unpleasantly threatening to children as some aspects of "Return to Oz" obviously were. The narrative line of "Natty Gann" is as clear and unambiguous as an eight-lane divided highway, or a railroad track.

I found the film expert, affecting and enjoyable, and particularly welcome in a time of scarcity. "Natty Gann" was initially OKd by an interim Disney management and then (in a turn of events as pleasantly astonishing as anything in the film itself) roundly endorsed and heavily supported by the next management team, headed by Michael Eisner.

(The Hollywood custom is for a new team to pour defoliant on all the works of previous management, lest they prove embarrassingly successful.)

But Kagan, who did the highly praised "The Chosen," is sure that not only "Natty Gann" but the whole idea of the family film is on the line. Is there indeed still a market for the film that children can enjoy and that their elders can watch with them without feeling either nauseous or supremely bored?

Walt Disney himself always insisted that he made family films rather than children's films, and that is clearly what producer Michael Lobell, Kagan and Rosenberg have tried with "Natty Gann."

(It was a measure of their commitment that Lobell and Kagan had to, and did, agree to pledge their salaries against the possibility of the film going over budget. It did, to the extent that a second score had to be commissioned when the first proved unsatisfactory, but by then the studio was so impressed with the film that it picked up the tab.)

Looking back over the year, you see that teen-agers, especially mature teen-agers, had a somewhat wider set of choices, led by "Back to the Future." But the family-wide fare that could be recommended without serious reservations was a thin menu indeed--"E. T." revisited, "Follow That Bird," "Cocoon," now "The Journey of Natty Gann" and little if anything else that sought or was able to close the generation gap.

The sadness is that the realism of the marketplace also becomes self-amplifying. The impulse to attend family films atrophies from disuse, and even the most fervent and helpful grandparents forget there may be the odd film to take the kids to see. Less begets less, which is the battle even "Natty Gann" with the Disney label has to fight.

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