Building Entertainment: The films of the Walt Disney Studio. The Journey of Natty Gann

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: The Journey of Natty Gann

Year: 1985

Box office: $9.7 Million

Plot: In 1935, teenage tomboy Natty Gann lives in Chicago with her unemployed widowed father, Sol. After being out of work because of the Great Depression, Sol applies for work as a lumberjack in Washington. However, to take the job, he must leave on almost no notice on a company bus. Unable to find Natty before departing, he leaves her a letter promising to send her the fare to join him as soon as he has earned it. Meanwhile, he makes arrangements with Connie, the shallow and insensitive innkeeper of their rooming-house, so Natty can stay on under Connie’s temporary supervision.

After overhearing Connie reporting her as an abandoned child, Natty runs away to find her father on her own, embarking on a cross-country journey riding the rails along with other penniless travelers and hobos. Along the way she saves a wolfdog from a dog fighting ring. In return the dog, whom she calls Wolf, becomes her friend and protector in her attempt to return to her father.

She has a brief, innocent romance with another young traveler, Harry, and encounters various obstacles that test her courage, perseverance, and ingenuity, such as being arrested after cattle rustling and remanded to a juvenile facility. Natty manages to escape the detention center and confronts the blacksmith who has been given control of the captured Wolf. The blacksmith turns out to be kind and fair-minded; he releases Wolf to Natty, and gives her food, a ride to a train station and enough money for a ticket. She is cheated of her ticket money by an unscrupulous ticket agent, and narrowly escapes his attempt to turn her in, returning to “riding the rails” illicitly on freight trains, where she is unexpectedly reunited with Harry in a rail-side shantytown.

When Natty’s father calls Connie, she tells him Natty is gone. In a later phone call he is grieved to learn that Natty’s wallet was found underneath a derailed freight train — unbeknownst to him, she survived the crash. He is given a week’s leave from the lumber company to search through the wreckage for her, but to no avail. He returns to the lumber camp and requests the most dangerous jobs, known as “widow’s work”, now that he seems to have little to live for. Arriving on the west coast, Natty’s journey takes several more challenging turns.

Harry finds work through the federal Works Progress Administration in San Francisco, but she declines his invitation to go with him, preferring to find her father. The logging operation does not list Sol Gann among their workers, but Natty is undeterred, searching fruitlessly for him by showing other loggers his photo in a pendant he has given her which is her last trace of her parents. Wolf hears the calls of other wolves nearby, and Natty tearfully tells him to go join his own kind.

The company clerk catches her in one of the backwoods camps and makes arrangements for her to be sent back down the mountain for her own safety. The clerk then unexpectedly finds the returned letter her father had sent enclosing her train ticket to rejoin him and tells Natty of his location. Natty sets out on foot and sees a company truck pass by loaded with injured men. In the truck, she glimpses her father. She runs after it, calling out for him, but is eventually devastated when it outpaces her. She hears his voice call out for her and finds him standing in the road. They share an emotional embrace, with Wolf looking on from a nearby cliff.

Background: Some three hundred teenagers auditioned for Natty Gann before Meredith Salenger was chosen. Natty Gann’s wolfdog Jed also appeared in The Thing and White Fang. 

Cast: Scatman Crothers returns as Sherman. This was his final film appearance.

Meredith Salenger as Natty Gann. Her first role was a small part as an orphan in Annie. She also appeared in Lake Placid, The Third Wheel,  Quality Time, Sparkle & Charm, The Kiss and Dream a Little Dream. She voiced characters in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Mad, Robot Chicken and  Star Wars Rebels.  John Cusack as Harry. His many films include Better Off Dead, Say Anything…, The Grifters, Bullets over Broadway, Grosse Pointe Blank, Being John Malkovich, High Fidelity, 1408, Igor, 2012, The Raven, and Love & Mercy,

Ray Wise as Sol Gann. He is best known for playing Leland Palmer on Twin Peaks.President Hal Gardner in 24, The Devil in Reaper, and Marvin in Fresh Off the Boat. He also had roles in  Robocop, Season of Fear, The Rift, Bob Roberts, Grey Knight, Rising Sun, Good Night and Good Luck and X-Men: First Class. Lainie Kazan as Connie. She was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for St. Elsewhere and the 1993 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for My Favorite Year. Kazan played Maria Portokalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding and its sequel film My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.

Music: Elmer Bernstein originally scored the picture. Ultimately most of his music was replaced with a new score by James Horner.

Critical Reception:

  • Gene Siskel of The Chicago Tribune said “So if you’re in the market for a “family” film, Natty Gann qualifies. But that doesn’t mean it’s a boring, namby-pamby entertainment. Rather, it’s that Natty, in her cap and jacket and determined look, is a character with universal appeal.”
  • Bill Cosford of The Miami Herald said, “The Journey of Natty Gann is one of those dead earnest, richly satisfying “family adventures” with which the Disney name has long been associated, despite the fact that the studio has made very few successful ones. It’s the kind of film we think Disney is supposed to make, regardless of whether the studio actually does.”
  • Paul Attanasio of The Washington Post said, “The Journey of Natty Gann shows how skillful filmmaking can take something that’s almost unendurably hokey and make it charming. Beautifully photographed and designed, evocatively scored, it’s a pleasantly archaic family entertainment in the Disney tradition.”

Legacy: At the Young Artist Awards, Salenger won for Best Leading Young Actress in a Feature Film, and the film itself was nominated for Best Family Motion Picture (Drama). Albert Wolsky received an Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design

My take: Another film that takes advantage of shooting on location. It’s beautifully shot. Salenger is perfect for the role.

Available on Disney +?: Yes

Next Week: White Fang