WALT DISNEY HAS BEEN getting a little crazy these days, venturing out of the "G" rated movie for the first time and trying to attract an older audience. But they have taken a step backwards with The Journey of Natty Gann, a simplistic adventure movie set during the Great Depression.
The story is very similar to a Jack London piece where a dog crosses the entire country to find its master, making friends with several other animals along the way. In Natty Gann, instead of a dog you have a young girl who is befriended by a wolf and journeys westward in search for her father.
Mature audiences will never be fooled about what is going to happen each step of the way in Natty Gann. We know Walt Disney too well to think that we will leave the movie in tears. Unlike the New England Patriots who constantly surprise intelligent people with their victories, this film reads like a supermarket counter pulp novel.
The themes in Natty Gann aren't too complicated, as you would expect in a movie targeted at third-graders. We see a 13-year-old girl decide to escape from the grips of a vain housekeeper who is taking care of the girl while her father is working in Washington state. During her journey across the country, she grows into a young woman. If you aren't able to tell by her actions that she is maturing, Walt Disney uses makeup and lipstick to make her look older in a kind of open caption for the hard-of-perception.
The characters are exaggerated enough so that no one can possibly confuse their essential nature. The housekeeper is constantly seen staring at a mirror, applying makeup to her bloated face, and combing her hair. She doesn't seem trustworthy, and her attempt to place the independent Natty into an orphanage is no surprise.
BUT THE SURPRISING thing about Natty Gann is that despite its simplicity and predictability, the movie is neither dull nor unsatisfying. The movie moves fast, probably to retain the interest of young children. Jumping from a dog fight to a train ride with hobbos to an escape from railroad policemen, the film gives you little time to pop your bubblegum.
The performances of Meredith Salenger as Natty and John Cusack as Harry are good enough to make the climaxes of the movie poignant, even for an older audience. We can feel the joy of the two youngsters as they escape from yet another pitfall. Even the wolf aptly shows its dilemma between going back to the pack and continuing its journey with Natty, although I think the Academy Awards may overlook the performance.
At least Walt Disney didn't try to romanticize the Depression. We still see all the homeless and hungry people. We see Natty search a trash can for food. We see a man make a pass at young Natty. The world of Natty Gann is simplistic but realistic, and the numerous interesting characters whom Natty meets along her journey make this world a fascinating and entertaining place.
You won't find any of Walt Disney's new spice in Natty Gann, but the movie isn't Snow White either. It is a fun and well-done movie, well worth seeing for all its simplicity.