Sony // 1984 // 138 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 12th, 2011
From an age of innocence comes a hero for today.
"The only thing I know about the dark is you can't see in it."
Ever since childhood, Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) has had a passion for baseball. Alas, just as he was entering adulthood and was on the verge of beginning a major career as one of the finest pitchers the game has ever seen, an unexpected tragedy derailed his career. Sixteen years later, Roy is primed to make a comeback as the league's oldest rookie. While coach Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley, Cocoon) is skeptical at first, Roy quickly proves his abilities and demonstrates that he might just have what it takes to lead Pop's team from worst to first. Unfortunately, he's going to have to handle some nasty unexpected challenges along the way.
The Natural really shouldn't work. It's a bizarre, alarmingly sentimental story containing a host of inexplicable elements and an ending that approaches being a parody of typical Hollywood endings. Even so, director Barry Levinson recognizes the potential of the medium he is working in and delivers a movie that succeeds against all odds (much like Roy Hobbs himself). Sniffed at by many critics but beloved by audiences, The Natural is not an intellectual experience but an emotional one. If you can surrender to this film's strange spell, you'll be swept up in a distinctive drama that still holds up quite well. If the film doesn't hook you, odds are you'll end up laughing at it. This is a film that quite literally swings for the fences, and most viewers will either regard it as a strikeout or a home run. The Natural isn't content with singles or doubles; it's all or nothing.
The film is an American fairy tale of sorts, a sprawling fable cobbled together from the sports pages, tall tales, Arthurian legend, Greek mythology, religion, and dreams. This isn't a painstaking recreation of what baseball was really like in the late 1930s (even when it is), but a film built on our warm, foggy memories and impossible fantasies. There is nothing small about The Natural, as there's something larger-than-life about many of the events and characters in the film. Roy is not just an aging ballplayer with a lot of talent; he's Achilles, Casey at the Bat and Jesus Christ. The women in his life are representations of pure good or pure evil. When the team screws up, their errors are vastly more humiliating than anything most professionals this side of Bill Buckner have endured. When the team succeeds, covers are knocked off baseballs and scoreboards are smashed. To criticize the film as unrealistic is like criticizing Spider-Man for suggesting that a bite from a radioactive spider could give a teenage boy superpowers.
The Natural was only Levinson's second film, but it's one of his most assured and visually distinctive efforts. Levinson blends the risk-taking ambition of a hungry newcomer with the impeccable polish of a seasoned pro; successfully employing costumes, set design and cinematography to not only recapture the look and feel of the period but also to beautifully enhance the film's themes and references. The shot of Glenn Close (Fatal Attraction) standing up in the stands as sunlight radiates from her halo-like hat is a sublime image which silently underlines the nature of Close's character to beautiful effect. It isn't subtle (very little in The Natural is), but it works splendidly.
The film benefits from a terrific cast which fills the film's (largely symbolic) characters with life and personality. Redford has always done enigmatic very well, and his guarded nature only enhances the almost supernatural aura which surrounds him. The film was made at just the right season in Redford's life, as he still retains his movie star good looks but also has just the right amount of weary character in his face. Glenn Close, Barbara Hershey (Hoosiers) and Kim Basinger (L.A. Confidential) all do strong work as the women in Roy's life, while Robert Duvall (The Godfather) and Robert Prosky (Dead Man Walking) both do a great deal of effective acting with facial expressions. The most enjoyable acting arguably comes from the duo of Richard Farnsworth (The Straight Story) and Wilford Brimley as Roy's coaches, as the pair's uniquely flavorful personalities do a beautiful job of preventing the film's tone of hushed awe from seeming too pretentious.
The Natural slides onto Blu-ray sporting an exceptional 1080p/1.85:1 transfer which makes the film's warm imagery more pleasurable than ever to behold. Detail is quite strong throughout and the image is largely free of scratches and flecks. There's a softness which occasionally prevents the picture from really popping with detail, but that's entirely due to artistic intent. A modest layer of natural grain is present throughout and gives the film a very warm look (this is a movie which really looks like a movie, if you know what I mean). Black levels are impressively deep, which is crucial during a handful of dramatic scenes. Audio is strong as well, with Randy Newman's splendid, Copland-esque score (one of the composer's best efforts and arguably the best score of 1984) really benefiting from the rich surround mix. Dialogue is clean enough, though there are a few moments where it's a little difficult to make out what characters are saying. The film's bigger moments will rattle your speaker system with a strength that's uncommon for movies of this age.
There aren't any new supplements, but the old material is thorough and well worth sitting through. "When Lightning Strikes: Creating the Natural" (50 minutes) is a three-part documentary detailing the film's basic making-of story, and a host of additional featurettes dig into more specific areas: "Extra Innings" (7 minutes), "Clubhouse Conversations" (15 minutes), "A Natural Gunned Down: The Story of Eddie Waitkus" (17 minutes) and "Knights in Shining Armor: The Mythology of The Natural" (10 minutes). You also get a very fine 45-minute documentary entitled "The Heart of The Natural" featuring additional thoughts from Levinson and Cal Ripken, Jr. Finally, the disc is equipped with BD-Live and MovieIQ.
Those expecting a straightforward baseball flick may find themselves bewildered by The Natural, but this fantastical piece of filmmaking stands alongside Field of Dreams as a beautiful dream built around America's Favorite Pastime. The Blu-ray release looks and sounds exceptional and comes with a generous supply of worthwhile supplements.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 138 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Rated PG