"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.
The movie is set in the Depression, and Sol Gann (Ray Wise), like everyone else in Chicago, is out of work. When Sol, a widower, gets a job in a lumber camp near Seattle, he deposits his daughter Natty (Meredith Salenger) with the landlady, promising to send a railroad ticket when he gets money. But Natty won't stay put. Quarreling with the landlady, she packs her bags and joins the hobo army riding the rails. In the hands of production designer Paul Sylbert, "The Journey of Natty Gann" artfully re-creates hard times, the shantytowns, the hard men in slouch hats. Natty blunders into a barn where men are betting on a fight between a wolf and a dog; she helps the wolf escape, and he becomes her road companion. Later, in a freight car, she meets Harry (John Cusack), another kid on the lam, who joins her, too.
She survives the "bulls" patrolling the rail yards, the nasties running an orphanage, a train crash, and any number of adults who cuff her and mutter gruffly, "Damn kid!" At times, the journey seems endless -- screen writer Jeanne Rosenberg hasn't built much pace into the story, and the cliche's in the dialogue start to weigh on you.
But the movie is painted wall-to-wall with attractive scenery, as Natty tramps through forests, past mountain ranges and along bridges, as trains huff and puff their way through the Rockies. James Horner's score lends a Coplandesque sweep to the scenery; director Jeremy Kagan and his cinematographer, Dick Bush, know how to create a sense of space within that scenery -- to give you a sense not just of the beauty, but of the characters' reaction to that beauty.
Salenger, a pixie with bright eyes, a pushed-up nose and inner-tube lips, anchors a cast that is, if not exceptional, unobjectionable. Cusack, one of the most personable young actors around, makes Harry a would-be smart operator with a heart of gold.
"The Journey of Natty Gann" is not exactly electrifying; and after watching the wolf make one more death-defying leap to a speeding train while the music swells, you'll be ready to trade in your membership in the ASPCA for an NRA card. But the movie grows on you. By the end, it has you talking like, well, a character in "The Journey of Natty Gann." So gwan, get outta heah.
The Journey of Natty Gann, at area theaters, is rated PG and contains some violence and mild profanity.