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MOVIE INFO

Director:
Barry Levinson
Cast:
Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Wilford Brimley, Barbara Hershey, Robert Prosky, Richard Farnsworth, Joe Don Baker, John Finnegan
Writing Credits:
Bernard Malamud (novel), Roger Towne, Phil Dusenberry

Tagline:
Boyhood dreams, a bat made from a tree struck by lightning and most importantly, a never-ending passion for the game.

Synopsis:
Nothing was going to stop Roy Hobbs from fulfilling his boyhood dream of baseball superstardom. Robert Redford stars in this inspiring fable that begins when 14-year-old Hobbs (Redford) fashions a powerful bat from a fallen oak tree. He soon impresses major league scouts with his ability, fixing his extraordinary talent in the mind of sportswriter Max Mercy (Robert Duvall), who eventually becomes instrumental in Hobb's career. But a meeting with a mysterious woman shatters his dream. Years passand an older Hobbs reappears as a rookie from The New York Knights. Overcoming physical pain and defying those who have a stake in seeing the Knights lose, Hobbs, with his boyhood bat, has his chance to lead the Knights to the pennant and to finally fulfill his dream.

Box Office:
Budget
$75 million.
Opening Weekend
$45.033 million on 3471 screens.
Domestic Gross
$102.543 million.

MPAA:
Rated PG

DVD DETAILS
Presentation:
Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
Audio:
English Dolby Digital 5.1
Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1
Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles:
English
Japanese
Portuguese
French
Closed-captioned
Supplements Subtitles:
Japanese
Portuguese

Runtime: 144 min.
Price: $24.94
Release Date: 4/3/2007

Bonus:
DVD One
• Introduction by Director Barry Levinson
DVD Two
• “When Lightning Strikes: Creating The Natural” Three Part Documentary
• “Extras Innings” Featurettes
• “Clubhouse Conversations” Featurette
• “A Natural Gunned Down: The Stalking of Eddie Waitkus” Featurette
• “Knights in Shining Armor: The Mythology of The Natural” Featurette
• “The Heart of The Natural” Documentary


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EQUIPMENT
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RELATED REVIEWS


The Natural: Director's Cut (1984)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 15, 2007)

After the low-key, comedic character piece that was 1982’s Diner, director Barry Levinson went for something completely different: The Natural. The 1984 flick spun a baseball fairy tale with an emphasis on airy mythology and a lack of much realism.

And it worked. The Natural became a pretty substantial hit with critics as well as moviegoers, and it remains one of the better regarded baseball flicks. Farm boy Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) once looked like a potential baseball all-star. He gets the invitation to pitch for the Cubs, and he shows his skills when he strikes out legendary hitter “The Whammer” (Joe Don Baker).

This attracts the attention of baseball groupie Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey). She only goes for the best, so she abandons the Whammer and casts her spell on Roy. Harriet also proves to be something of a nutbag; when Roy tells her he’ll be the best that ever played, she shoots him, an event that completely derails his baseball career.

The story picks up decades later. After an extended absence from the game, Roy attracts attention from scouts and nabs a spot as a middle-aged rookie right fielder for the sad-sack New York Knights. He also meets beautiful Memo Paris (Kim Basinger), the niece of manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) and the girlfriend of arrogant, lazy outfielder Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen).

At first Pop refuses to play Roy, but he eventually puts Hobbs in the lineup. He causes an immediate sensation when he literally hits the cover off the ball in his first at bat. When Bailey dies during a freak accident on the field, Roy permanently gets his spot in right field and lifts the Knights’ fortunes with him. Not all greet this with joy, however. Team owner “The Judge” (Robert Prosky) wants Hobbs to play less well; if the Knights win the pennant, Pop can buy majority interest in the franchise, so the Judge wants to prevent this.

Those elements lead to complications, especially when Roy develops a romantic interest in sexy Memo. She’s a bad influence, and his performance on the field immediately goes in the tank. The rest of the flick follows Roy’s fortunes in various ways, with a split between the team and his personal life – a factor altered when his childhood sweetheart Iris (Glenn Close) returns to the scene.

I’ve been hard on Levinson in the past, and I think he warrants such treatment. Levinson has always been an extremely up and down director, which an emphasis on the lows. And believe me: I don’t think it gets much lower than insufferable clunkers like Good Morning Vietnam, Toys and Avalon. Even Levinson’s biggest hit – the Oscar-winning Rain Man - is nothing more than sentimental hogwash. Levinson’s most recent flick – 2006’s Man of the Year - simply reinforced my notion of the director as simplistic hack.

Nonetheless, I’ll give credit where it’s due, and Levinson can produce solid work at times. 1991’s Bugsy worked awfully well, and The Natural also clearly stands as one of his better efforts. At times Levinson veers toward the flaws that mar many of his films, as he tends to be cloying and condescending. The latter doesn’t become an issue in this simple fable, but the former could cause problems.

Happily, Levinson avoids the gooey sentimentality that harms so many of his films. Natural walks a fine line in this regard, and with its heavy emphasis on the mythological, it almost falls into a treacly abyss. Miraculously, the movie manages to remain on the positive side of this divide. It teeters but never succumbs to its weaker tendencies.

Indeed, these elements turn into a strength. Natural wears its mythology and its sentiment on its sleeve. It never pretends to exist in the real world, and it emphasizes the awe-inspiring and the semi-corny. This is a sphere in which lightning always appears whenever anything dramatic occurs, and in which good girls always wear white and bad women always don black. There’s not a lot of room for dramatic interpretation in this fable.

But since Natural truly exists as a fantasy, Levinson makes these elements work. The nature of baseball helps. It’s always been the sport most appropriate for mythology, and the film milks baseball’s inherent drama and magic. It’s a basic good vs. evil tale, but one that makes perfect sense within its confines, and baseball helps create an even more engaging setting for its themes.

A terrific cast helps. In addition to the actors I already mentioned, we find stellar talents like Robert Duvall, Richard Farnsworth and Darrin McGavin. This excellent group abets the material well and gives the tale a little more credibility; if so many fine performers buy into the fantasy, who are we to argue?

Redford seems too old for the part; the then-47-year-old actor looks well past his mid-thirties, his character’s age. Nonetheless, Redford still had enough golden boy sparkle to make his performance work. Redford doesn’t dazzle in the part; in fact, he seems a little dull at times. That’s not a real negative, though, since his low-key simplicity matches Hobbs’ Midwest persona. I don’t know if it’s a great match of actor and role, but it’s certainly not a problem.

I can find a few reasons to complain about The Natural. The flick drags at times, and it doesn’t always explore its characters and relationships very well. Nonetheless, it succeeds much more than it falters. The film connects with the magical side of baseball to become an entertaining little fable.

Note that this DVD presents a new “Director’s Cut” of The Natural. Apparently it adds about 15 minutes of footage to the theatrical version, but edits and restructuring means it only runs about six minutes longer. Since I’ve not seen the original cut of the film in decades, I can’t comment on the changes.

I can say that this is a true “Director’s Cut”, not just an extended/altered version of the film created without filmmaker approval. We’ve seen more than a few of those lately; they essentially just take the original cuts and add deleted scenes without input from the director. Levinson approves and endorses this edition; he doesn’t discount the original, but he mentions that this one comes closer to his vision for the tale.


The DVD Grades: Picture A-/ Audio A-/ Bonus B+

The Natural appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Terrific visuals came across throughout this transfer.

Sharpness almost always seemed strong. A couple of slightly soft shots materialized, but the vast majority of the flick demonstrated good delineation. Granted, the period presentation occasionally favored a slightly hazy appearance, but I didn’t think those elements caused distractions.

No jagged edges or shimmering occurred, and edge enhancement appeared to be absent. Source flaws also didn’t create distractions. A couple of shots were a bit grainier than expected, but no other defects came along the way.

Given its old-time setting, I expected a subdued palette from The Natural, and it went along the anticipated lines. The flick featured a fairly sepia-oriented tone. Within that, the colors seemed fine. The hues were well rendered inside the confines of the vaguely brownish visuals. Blacks were dense and dark, while shadows came across as smooth and clear. I found little about which to complain from this nice transfer.

While not a slam-bang mix, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of The Natural provided surprisingly vivid accompaniment to the action. The soundfield created a strong sense of atmosphere. Music offered great stereo delineation, and the effects formed a nice feeling of place and setting. Early in the flick, trains moved accurately around the spectrum, and they also surrounded us in an engrossing way. Other effects – thunder, stadiums, etc. – also opened up the spectrum well. These helped make a realm that involved us well.

Audio quality never betrayed the 23-year-old roots of the material. Speech always remained crisp and concise, while music fared well. The score sounded rich and full at all times. Effects seemed accurate and dynamic, and they boasted nice low-end response when necessary. Because the soundtrack didn’t dazzle, I was a little reluctant to give it an “A-“. However, it worked so well – especially given the movie’s age – that I figured it merited a high mark.

Only one supplement pops up on DVD One: an introduction from director Barry Levinson. In this two-minute clip, he tells us a little about the changes made for the Director’s Cut. He indicates that he executed big changes in the first act, and although he added about 20 minutes of new footage, other edits mean the Director’s Cut runs only about six minutes longer than the theatrical version. I wish Levinson had given us a commentary to provide greater discussion of the changes, but at least we get some insights about the alterations.

Moving to DVD Two, we begin with a three-part documentary entitled When Lightning Strikes: Creating The Natural. Taken together, the three segments fill a total of 49 minutes and 49 seconds. The show combines movie clips, archival materials, and interviews. We hear from Levinson, author’s daughter Janna Malamud Smith, Syracuse University professor Richard Breyer, writer/former chairman BBDO North America Phil Dusenberry, Great Baseball Films author Rob Edelman, National Baseball Hall of Fame vice president and chief curator Ted Spencer, National Baseball Hall of Fame Curator of History and Research John Odell, The Hero’s Journey author Phil Cousineau, broadcaster Bob Costas, Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball author George Will, writer/executive producer Roger Towne, former CAA agent Amy Bookman, producer Mark Johnson, production executive Patrick Markey, director of photography Caleb Deschanel, casting director Ellen Chenoweth, composer Randy Newman, Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Wilmington and actors Glenn Close, Robert Redford and Robert Prosky.

“Strikes” looks at author Bernard Malamud, the original novel, its real-life influences and its adaptation for the screen. From there it goes through bringing on a director, crew and cast, locations and shooting the baseball scenes. The rest of “Strikes” examines period elements, visual design, various memories of filming the picture, post-production and the movie’s reception

DVD Two includes lots of extras, and “Strikes” starts them off well. It provides a very nice examination of the original novel and its adaptation, and it digs into many other issues in a positive way. We get many intriguing and/or amusing stories along the way, all of which flesh out our understanding of the production. “Strikes” is a top-notch little documentary.

Next come four featurettes under the banner of Extra Innings. These brief pieces include “Slow-Motion” (1:04), “Uniform Color” (2:03), “The Sandberg Game” (1:49) and “The President’s Question” (2:11). These feature Deschanel, Johnson, Spencer, Costas, Dusenberry, Towne, costume designer Bernie Pollack, and former Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg.

They cover the movie’s use of slow motion in one unexpected way, the look of the baseball uniforms, how Costas dubbed Sandberg “the real natural” in one big 1984 game, and former President Reagan’s query about the motives of a movie character. All these components are quite interesting, though I’m not sure why they weren’t simply incorporated into “Strikes”.

Clubhouse Conversations runs 15 minutes, 23 seconds. It features Will, Redford, Sandberg, Costas, Edelman, broadcaster Charley Steiner, WGM Management president Arn Tellem and ballplayers Don Mattingly and Jason Giambi. The participants discuss their personal histories with baseball and reflect on various aspects of the sport and what it means to them. They also chat a little about The Natural.

Mostly we get a lot of comments that wax euphoric about the beauty of baseball. While I adore the sport and like some of the players’ remarks, I could live without the usual pseudo-philosophical ramblings of Will and Costas. Still, the show entertains much of the time and merits a look.

For some history behind the movie’s story, we go to A Natural Gunned Down: The Stalking of Eddie Waitkus. In this 17-minute and six-second show, we hear from Baseball’s Natural: The Story of Eddie Waitkus author John Theodore and Waitkus’ son Ted. “Stalking” looks at the story that inspired the more violent aspect of The Natural. We learn about ballplayer Waitkus and how a psycho female fan affected his life and career. “Stalking” provides a tight exploration of the Waitkus story and proves very interesting for Natural fans.

Next comes the nine-minute and 17-second Knights in Shining Armor: The Mythology of The Natural. It offers notes from Dusenberry, Cousineau, Redford, Towne, Costas, Smith, Breyer, Deschanel, and National Baseball Hall of Game Senior Curator Tom Shieber. “Knights” views the movie through the prism of literature and prior mythological tales. It offers a nice little interpretation of the tale and deserves a look.

Finally, The Heart of The Natural lasts 44 minutes, four seconds, and features Levinson and ballplayer Cal Ripken Jr. Also found on the original 2001 DVD, “Heart” examines the movie’s themes and how they connect to real-life baseball as well as other reflections on the flick, its characters and situations.

I’ve been a Ripken fan ever since his rookie year, but I have to admit the man is not an interesting speaker. Earnest and genuine, he simply lacks much charisma. Since “Heart” features Ripken more than anyone else, that makes the show something of a dud. Ripken conveys general platitudes but never conveys much to pique our interest. “Heart” doesn’t deliver much stimulating content.

Does this 2007 DVD lose anything from the 2001 release? Yes, but not a lot. As I mentioned, it retains “The Heart of The Natural”, the prior release’s major component. However, it drops trailers for The Way We Were, The Natural and Bugsy as well as rudimentary “Talent Files” for Levinson and six of the actors. Those are no loss, but it's too bad this DVD fails to include the movie’s trailer.

Although I feared The Natural would become another of Barry Levinson’s sickly sentimental stinkers, it avoids the usual traps. Instead, it offers a stirring and engaging fantasy. The DVD presents excellent picture and audio along with a very good collection of supplements. This release does justice to a fine film.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.4375 Stars Number of Votes: 16
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Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main