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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Baseball > The Natural - Director's Cut (DVD-Video)

The Natural - Director's Cut (DVD-Video)


Picture: B     Sound: B-     Extras: B     Film: A-



As the first film ever released by Tri-Star Pictures, The Natural was a moderate hit in theaters and garnered four Academy Award nominations, winning none.  But its reputation and fan base has grown over the years, and it's now widely considered to be one of the most beloved sports movies ever made.  It might not have won any Oscars, set any box-office records or made many critics Best-10 lists, but it certainly gets talked about more often than a lot of other movies from 1984 that made more money or received greater acclaim.


Just in time for the beginning of the 2007 baseball season comes Barry Levinson's director's cut of The Natural.  But to tell you the truth, when compared to the theatrical cut of the movie, most of the minor changes Levinson makes in the director's cut weren't necessary, and the condensing of one great sequence is a mistake.


Levinson limits his alterations to the first 20 minutes or so, and too little is changed to affect one's overall enjoyment of the film, but he shouldn't have shortened the sequence where young baseball phenom Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) strikes out a Babe Ruth-style figure called the Whammer (Joe Don Baker).


In the original cut, one of the best shots in the film takes place right after Hobbs strikes out the Whammer during a picturesque sunset, and from a long shot, we see the crowd of onlookers gather around Hobbs, who, for one shining moment, has stolen the glory away from the Whammer.  This is one of the most memorable sequences in the movie, and Baker so perfectly embodies the Babe that we come away wanting to see more of him, not less.


As I've said before, I'm all for longer cuts of movies where a director goes back and adds things he was forced to leave on the cutting-room floor, but when a director starts removing anything from an already good original cut, it gets back to the old adage of, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."


Based on the 1952 book of the same name by Bernard Malamud, which ended on a much darker note, The Natural is a baseball fantasy/morality tale with roots in Greek mythology and Arthurian legend.  Roy Hobbs is the flawed hero anointed by the gods to become "the best there ever was" if he travels down the right path.  But his Achilles' heel turns out to be women, and when he's in the presence of a good woman, he succeeds, but when he succumbs to the temptations of a bad woman, he fails.


Hobbs' magical sword, his Excalibur, is a homemade bat from childhood he calls Wonderboy that he carved from the wood of the tree his father died under which was split open by lightning later that night.


After getting sidetracked for 16 years due to one of those bad women (Barbara Hershey), Hobbs belatedly realizes his dream of reaching the major leagues when he becomes a middle-aged rookie with the last place New York Knights in 1939.


While helping the Knights reverse their fortunes from cellar-dwellers to contenders, Hobbs encounters good men like Knights manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) and assistant coach, Red (Richard Farnsworth), while being tested by corrupt men like the principal owner of the Knights (Robert Prosky as The Judge) and a professional gambler with a glass eye (an unbilled Darren McGavin as Gus Sands).


Hobbs will also be hounded by an egotistical reporter (Robert Duvall as Max Mercy) determined to uncover the secret to the mystery slugger's past -- Mercy was there the day Hobbs struck out the Whammer.


Hobbs will also fall under the opposing influences of two women, one good and one bad.  The bad girl is Pop's niece, Memo Paris (Kim Basinger), a blonde bombshell hired by Gus and the Judge to distract our hero, while the good girl is Hobbs' childhood sweetheart, Iris (Glenn Close), whose very presence brings him good luck.


The supporting cast is excellent across the board, right down to smaller roles like the chubby batboy (George Wilkosz as Bobby Savoy) befriended by Hobbs, and Michael Madsen as "Bump" Bailey, the Knights' prima donna star right-fielder until Hobbs gets there.


If you don't buy into it, The Natural can be corny, I suppose, but if accepted on the terms of the ultimate baseball fantasy, it's unbeatable.  In fact, I think the film plays better now than it did in 1984 because it hearkens back to a more innocent time long before steroids and outrageous salaries when the national pastime was still a game, not the unfairly structured big business it's become.


You hear the term "eye candy" sometimes used to describe the special effects and CGI so prevalent in many of today's movies, but the term is being misapplied.  The term "eye candy" should only be used when talking about a film as beautiful as The Natural," which is a masterpiece on a technical level.  The Natural, not some CGI-created eye sore like 300, has the gorgeous look to which all movies should strive.


Redford is the star of The Natural and Levinson the director, and while both are at the top of their game, I'll bet even they would tell you that the most valuable players of this project are the production design, set-decoration team of Mel Bourne, Angelo Graham and Bruce Weintraub and costume designers Bernie Pollack and Gloria Gresham, who combine to impeccably recreate 1920s and '30s America, and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, whose lighting of these period sets makes virtually every shot pretty enough to be on a postcard.


Another crucial component to the film's winning formula is the majestic musical score by Randy Newman that's still heard today, often during baseball broadcasts.


The Natural is a larger-than-life fantasy, but it's a mature, elegiac fantasy done with feeling and sincerity that really captures the mystique of old-time baseball.  And I don't think any other actor could embody Roy Hobbs better than Redford, whose laconic persona is a perfect fit for the role.  He's also a pretty good athlete to boot.


Sony's new 2-disc DVD comes with a new, high-definition digital transfer supervised by cinematographer Deschanel that has the film looking the best it has since it played in theaters. The sound is newly recorded in 5.1 Dolby Digital.  On Disc One, the film itself comes with a brief introduction by Levinson.


Disc Two contains five new featurettes including cast and crew of the film, sports broadcaster Bob Costas and former major leaguers such as Ryne Sandberg.  A sixth featurette with baseball great Cal Ripken Jr. talking about different aspects of the game was recorded for the film's first DVD release in 2001.  The original theatrical trailer, which is on that 2001 DVD version, isn't included here, but should be.  However, there's a very interesting featurette about former major-league first baseman Eddie Waitkus, who, similar to Roy Hobbs, was shot and seriously wounded by a disturbed fan in 1949.



-   Chuck O'Leary


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