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.