Feb 03rd: “The Journey of Natty Gann” (1985)
Celebrating 28 days of underrated 80s cinematic treasures.
I saw this movie back in the late 80s. I’m not sure if it was a rental, or if it was one of those Saturday afternoon matinee movies that were horribly split into a dozen pieces, with commercials in between. No matter, how it was delivered, it’s impact was immense. It introduced me to something I hadn’t seen before. A girl who took charge. A girl who had the courage to do something, from which I could find no comparisons within my immediate reality. I believed that every girl had a bit of Natty Gann inside of them, and that was something I never took for granted. Girls always made better friends in school. They made better sense of their world. They didn’t take to stupidity. I expect that the follow-through spirit of this fill is still a huge influence to both boys and girls to this day.
As I see it, underrated doesn’t always mean unsuccessful or unpopular. The good word of some movies simply doesn’t travel far enough to give credit where deserved. In the current age of masked heroes and magic super senses, those real-to-life inspirational characters are not getting much screen-time. There’s so much that can be said about a girl and her trusty wolf dog. Both are mortals operating on same level, not unlike you and me. This is what we know from the outset, while watching The Journey of Natty Gann.
Both Natty and the wolfdog see risk, and understand that nothing can be taken at face value. The wolfdog in this story is the tug at the heart strings element however. You just don’t want him to leave any more than Natty Gann does, but she understands the reality of her situation, beyond that of her emotional attachment. But rest assured that when the credits roll and we get up to leave, there’s something that stays with us much longer than any superhero movie. The reality check is raw, and that rawness is beautiful.
The story goes as follows: A young girl goes on an adventure across state, in order to find her father. It’s a story that can easily hang a great many possibilities along the way: with a spirit of adventure, the fledgling taking flight on the road to discovery. It promises life lessons and the typical Disney happy ending. But this adventure goes further beyond all of that. It subverts expectations in ways that no other Disney before this had attempted, and became the forerunner for a whole shakeup in how the female protagonist would be represented. Like Annie before, it comes with fists flying.
Meredith Salenger in her first starring role brings young Natty Gann to life with an unforgettable spirit. Natty Gann is a formidable teenage tomboy who is extremely protective of her father — Sol Gann played by Ray Wise. The feeling is mutual, but Sol is a man who comes with a sense of shame. He cannot give his only daughter everything that she deserves.
Whatever happened to Sol’s wife, Natty’s mother, is never spoken about on screen, but there is the understanding that being a single parent is tough, especially during the depression era. Times were tough, money was short and society was hitting dark patches of instability. It was also a time where the uncertain influence of communism was on the plate. To some, communism was open to them as a great fixer of problems, but to many, it was a threat to the fabric and continued evolution of democracy. It would mark the end of the American Dream as they saw it. Sol was a smart man, who recognised the conflict that came with the temptation.
Now, stopping you there, I have to state: This doesn’t sound like a Disney movie so far, does it? It sounds deep, dark, and factually frightening. That’s how it was, and this movie doesn’t shy away from that reality. Ray Wise plays his part so well here that it’s as if he was plucked from the depression era and placed in this movie, just for the sake of authenticity.
Incredible as it seems, this is a much loved children’s adventure film that by miracle of its writing, direction and through the care of its producers, didn’t appear to shy away or even water down the difficult subject matter that came to such a tale. And how grateful are we, for having such an unapologetically progressive film, that not only shines its light on issues of gender and equality, but exposes the many injustices of the world that are found along Natty Gann’s journey.
In order to keep going, Sol Gann takes work as a lumberjack — work that came to him without any notice, nor was there any way of preparing Natty for his sudden leave of absence. With fears of abandonment, and a yearning to not lose the only family that she has, Natty goes off on her own to find her father. She travels illegally on box-cars (something we saw as comical in many movies during the 70s) and she gets in a whole lot of trouble. natty even finds herself stuck behind the walls of a detention centre. Trust is the arc for this story. Saying that however, she doesn’t lose touch with her need to seek honesty. But Natty has to learn how to recognise it, and never give up trying.
Natty finds companionship with a wolf dog — which she helps liberate from an bloodsport dog-fighting ring. The bond and trust that grows between the two is both magnificent and touching. Natty also encounters on her travels, another rogue traveller, Harry, played by John Cusack.
Harry is a slightly older, more experienced wanderer whom for a short while at least, steps in as a reminder of what it’s like to depend on another. Rosenberg’s screenplay doesn’t forget the idea of the teenage love interest, but sets it back enough to not let it dominate. Trust always comes first before letting your guard down.
I can’t give this movie enough praise. It’s a rare Disney live action film that didn’t merge with the idea of the princess in a beautiful flowing dress, being saved by a handsome prince. The character of Natty Gann was purposely written against type and thank goodness Meredith Salenger came to the role, because this was the role she was born to play.
But there is never a moment when we believe that this girl couldn’t handle herself, nor did she struggle a great deal when adapting to her surroundings. There was never a moment when the danger was such that we hoped that Harry would ever have to return within the closing moments of imminent peril. In the most trying moments when she would have benefitted from Harry-oics (see what I did there?) is seemed, Natty Gann didn’t need to be saved. No matter the circumstance, she had what it takes to figure it out.
To be a Natty Gann in real life takes courage, and my two sons will soon be old enough to watch and help them grow with the right stuff in mind, and in their hearts.
Written by: Stephen Radford