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THE NATURAL

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Kim Basinger, Wilford Brimley, Robert Prosky
Director:  Barry Levinson
Audio:  Dolby Digital 4.0, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  Documentary, Trailers, Talent Files
Length:  136 Minutes
Release Date:  April 3, 2001

Film ***1/2

In one of my favorite Peanuts’ strips, Charlie Brown is watching The Natural on TV with his little sister, Sally.  He explains that he loves the ending when Roy Hobbs’ (Redford) home run ball shatters the stadium lights, causing them to shower sparks down on the field like fireworks.  “How do you know he’ll hit it this time?” Sally asks.  “He always hits it,” answers Charlie Brown.

The Natural is arguably the best entry in the American genre known as “the baseball movie”.  It works because it hits all the necessary right notes:  it’s a story about innocence and passion, where love for the game means more than money, fame or any other perks of success.  It taps into the mythology of the sport, and how it still can represent everything that’s good and right about America despite its many problems today.  And most of all, Roy does always hit that final shot.

Roy is the natural of the title…a boy with an uncanny gift for the game.  His father teaches him the love for baseball at an early age, and after his death, Roy makes himself a bat out of the wood of a tree on their farm that gets struck by lightning one night. 

He eventually gets the call to the big leagues he’s been waiting for, but an unforeseeable event sidetracks him for sixteen years.  We never fully know what happened to Roy during all his years away, but at long last, and past his prime, he shows up in the dugout of the New York Knights ready to give his dream another go.

This doesn’t set well with gruff and frustrated manager Pop (Brimley), who doesn’t see how a middle-aged rookie is supposed to help his foundering ball club.  But Hobbs proves when he steps into the batter’s box that the gift is still with him, even at his age.

Roy is making the most of his second chance, which displeases the judge (Prosky), the co-owner of the team.  It turns out, if the Knights don’t win the pennant, full ownership of the team reverts to him, and Pop is out.  Hobbs may be becoming a hero to the masses of baseball fans, but he’s a thorn in the side of the judge, who soon learns that all his attempts to buy or bribe Roy’s loyalty are in vain.

Ball players are a notoriously superstitious lot, and Roy’s hex comes in the form of Memo Paris (Basinger), a pretty socialite girl and niece of Pop, who warns Hobbs that she’s bad luck.  Roy doesn’t believe in such things…but neither can he explain the sudden slump he falls into.  This is only averted by a somewhat magical moment, when his childhood sweetheart (Close) comes to see him in Chicago, and stands up in the bleachers where he can see her.  With his next swing of the bat, Roy seems back on track.

Roy welcomes the warm return to his past with her, and the remembrances of why he started playing the game in the first place.  But a darker part of his past is resurrecting, too, and with one game left between the Knights and the pennant, Roy puts his life on the line for one last shot at his dream.

For me, the best part of the film is that it argues convincingly that a dream, even one rooted in something as cosmically inconsequential as sports, is actually worth risking everything for, and that there’s a certain nobility in Roy’s willingness to swing the bat just one more time, even though walking away from the game might mean a long healthy life for himself.  And when he returns, it’s not for the money or the glory, but for a simple and pure love of the game that his father once taught him.

This is my favorite Robert Redford performance.  As Hobbs, he brings an aloof likeability to the character, while keeping most of his “business” under the surface, so the audience always finds itself trying to read him.  Physically, he’s right for the role, in the fact that he swings the bat and hurls the ball well enough to be believable as a professional player.  But I’d have to say, my favorite performance in the film is Wilford Brimley as Doc.  He really nails the crotchety old man persona that would become his trademark, and offers some of the film’s most amusingly touching moments.

The Natural is simply a film that touches all the right bases for a baseball movie.  It explores the game’s men and myths, the passions and frustrations, and the never ending dream that keeps grown men playing a kid’s game.  Roy Hobbs is not a real player, but he embodies everything about the sport that is pure and good.  The Hall of Fame wouldn’t have been big enough for such a man.

Video ***1/2

This is a triumphant anamorphic transfer from Columbia Tri Star.  I’m always a little cautious when it comes to 80’s movies on disc, because most of the ones I’ve seen don’t look very good.  The Natural is a welcome exception.  Barry Levinson’s nostalgic color schemes of warm yellows, green fields and blue skies play naturally and richly, with no distortions, bleedings or lack of detail.  Images are generally sharp and clean throughout.  One or two darker scenes exhibit a little bit of grain and softness, but these are not distractions.  Overall, fans of the film should be very pleased.

Audio **1/2

The new 4.0 mix is adequate, if not remarkable.  The rear channels only noticeably come into play once or twice during crowd scenes or to accent Randy Newman’s remarkable score.  The lack of .1 channel doesn’t really detract from the audio, given the nature of the film.  Dialogue is clear throughout, and there is no discernable noise or distortions on the soundtrack.

Features **

The key feature is called a documentary, but is really a reflection on The Natural by Cal Ripken, Jr., with a few interjected comments by director Levinson.  It’s 45 minutes long, but unfortunately, not nearly as interesting as you might expect.  The disc also contains talent files and three trailers.

Summary:

The Natural is a title that gladly crosses over from my wish list to my shelf.  One of the best baseball movies ever made, this film encompasses the entire scope of how we, as a country, view our national pastime.  Boasting a good script and terrific lead performances, this crowd pleaser makes for a terrific DVD offering.  And if you notice a strange sensation in your rear end while viewing it, don’t be alarmed…that’s just the chair leaving you as you rise to your feet to cheer the inimitable Roy Hobbs.