|The Journey of Natty Gann|
I remember popping in my VHS copy of The Sword in the Stone just to watch this trailer, sometimes three or four times in a row. It hit all my little girl id buttons: A tough kid (a tough GIRL!) on an epic adventure without the assistance of adults! Baby-faced John Cusack! A pet wolf! (I'm terribly afraid of dogs, so I've always weirdly loved characters who aren't even afraid of wolves. See also, Julie of the Wolves, Young Robin's favorite book). And yet, I never saw the actual movie before this week, through a combination of poor availability on home video and a nagging fear that the actual movie could never live up to my love for the trailer.
But when I caught The Journey of Natty Gann on South African satellite this weekend, I knew the time had come to actually watch it. And the film managed to live up to my impossibly high expectations. If you can't stand live action Disney family films, there is nothing for you here, but Natty Gann is a fine example of the form.
For those unable to watch the trailer above, here's a rough outline of the plot: In the middle of the Great Depression, twelve-year-old Natty Gann runs away from her neglectful reluctant caregiver (Lainie Kazan) in Chicago to find her father, who has gone out west for work. Everyone cynically tells Natty that her father abandoned her, but in truth he is a good man (despite being played by Ray Wise, who I suppose had not yet been saddled with the typecasting that has defined the last twenty years of his career) and is trying to save enough money to buy Natty a train ticket of her own to join him. Natalie faces a series of adventures along the way, picks up a pet wolf, and meets another young kid on a journey of his own, Harry (John Cusack).
|John Cusack as Harry|
Harry was one of the best surprises of the film for me. I'm pretty much powerless in the face of young John Cusack, but I still worried that his character might be too much of a mentor figure for Natty or merely part of a boring old romantic subplot. There are touches of both, but ultimately Harry comes across as Natty's fellow adventurer. He thinks of himself as more street-wise (or rail-wise?) than Natty, but very quickly learns not to condescend to her.
|Natty Gann (Meredith Salenger) gets her Katniss on|
And Meredith Salenger is absolutely terrific as Natty Gann. Even feminist-in-training Young Robin recognized some of the problems with the "tomboy" character archetype: that the way for a girl to be cool was for to not be "girly." What's remarkable about the character Natty Gann as written by Jeanne Rosenberg and played by Salenger is that her personality is just that–her personality, given even rougher edges by the hard circumstances of her life. Her toughness isn't meant to make her any less of a "real girl." Natty struggles to be accepted as equal to adults, rather than equal to the boys. When Harry tells her, "You're a real woman of the world, kid" we know she's earned the respect she seeks.
The Journey of Natty Gann is a movie I'll want my hypothetical children to see; to entertain them, teach them life lessons, and help begin their feminist indoctrination. And as an adult, I still found myself enjoying every minute of it. What more could you ask of a family film? [Perhaps the absence of an attempted rape scene, although said scene if fleeting, not exploitative, and ripe to become a Teachable Moment]
And in the meantime, let's find Meredith Salenger her career-redefining role. She's talented, gorgeous, and clearly a sweetheart: she tweeted me after I praised Natty Gann on Twitter while I was watching it: [I'd love to go back and time and tell Young Robin about that, although explaining Twitter to a child in the late 1980s sounds even more difficult than inventing time travel.]
Also based on Twitter, I see that Meredith Salenger is good friends with Parks & Rec's Retta, so I may have an idea how to go about reinvigorating her career: *cough* SPINOFF *cough*