It’s easy to understand why The Journey of Natty Gann is not up there in the Disney girl-movies canon; a tough tween tomboy who smokes and fights and mudders “shit” makes her way across Depression-era America train-hopping solo from Chicago to Washington State to find her quasi-Communist labor-organizer single-father of a dad, until she be friends a protective and intuitive actual-wolf (who goes by “Wolf”) who becomes her BFF, and then mostly they just walk and enjoy each others company amid the struggle, he as her canine protector and fur pillow, as they live by their wits, and occasionally encounter a a young John Cusack, in the role of a Wisened Orphan™. It’s not exactly Little Mermaid.
It’s more like Days of Heaven meets dog-terror B movie classic White Dog.
I watched this movie about a dozen times as a child of the eighties and dreamt of being Natty Gann, taking zero shit from anyone in her drab butch woolens and smart newsboy cap. She’s on a crusade to find her dad (played by Ray Wise, aka Laura Palmer’s dad)
, who is seemingly the only love she has ever known (that is until she meets this wolf and sort-of fraternal/crushy teen John Cusack) and she throws as many punches as she takes and is just snaking through the adult world that barely cares for her to find her own way, to manifest her destiny. It’s hard to imagine a movie today where as many adults swat, slap, push or punch a child, and the movie is not shy about that realism of kids barely being in school, or working full time by age 10, or running in homeless packs, being prisoner in abusive reformatories or just being told to not bother the adults and be home by dark.
The other strange thing about the movie that would keep it from ever being made now is that it is essentially, like, a horror movie now. Natty is constantly in places and situations where you cannot rightfully put a child in a movie anymore because we recognize it as a telegraph of terror. She does stuff like wander into a dogfight filled with drunk men, she lives in a men’s boarding house BY HERSELF, or wanders through hobo encampment, rides in a boxcar alone with a scabby looking stranger-man. We know all of these situations now, in 2014 movies, as shorthanding a kind of girl-peril–invariably, the girl is going to get attacked or hurt–girls do not triumph because we are used to so much torture-porn. But in Natty Gann she just is like “piss off” or triumphs (by living!) or is defended by her wild-animal companion and just continues on, walking for days on foot with pitstops for eating out of the trash or lapping thirstily at a stream.
Natty’s tough-girl instincts serve her well is the essential text of the movie. Pre-teen girl as gambler–she has to be! Save for the kindness of her family friend/neighborhood sage played by Scatman Crothers,
all the adults in the movie alternately yell at her or try to use her. Whilst she is out hitchin’ in backwoods and byways of the American west, some creep tries to cop a feel while driving (“you’ll like it!”) and she DOES A TUCK N’ ROLL OUT OF HIS MOVING PICK UP TRUCK but not before Wolf breaks the glass of the cab and attacks the creeps face (YES!). One of the best rape-revenge scenes this side of Ms.45/Angel-grade films.
Meanwhile, amidst all this, Natty’s dad is calling back to Chicago to check on her, only to discover she has taken off from the flophouse where she had a bunkbed with dad, a puppy and Scatman Crothers her only solace–why would she even stay?! Her wallet (word to wallet-carrying 12 year old girls everywhere) has been found under a train in the Rockies, the assumption made by her dad being Natty’s dead. Her dad starts doing the most dangerous tree-top work back in the logging camp, in some Gift of The Maji kind of move–he has no family, he might as well die, creating tension as we know Natty is risking her life every second of the day to get back to the only family she has, will she beat the clock and find him before he suicides himself in some clear cutting “accident”?! Will her wolf-friend be sufficent protection from all the fucking creeps and predators of the world? I WILL NOT SPOIL IT FOR YOU.
Like the movie’s tagline says “Two thousand miles of danger separate her from her father. Only love, hope and courage can help her find him.” That should actually read “and courage and her wolf friend and her girl strength to survive an indifferent world”. It’s an unheralded tween feminist classic–watch it today!