ONE MAGIC CHRISTMAS Directed by Phillip Borsos Screenplay by Thomas Meehan
Moviegoers should probably shut their eyes for the first few seconds of The Journey of Natty Gann and miss the production company's logo. Those who insist that the studio in question maintain certain prissy and unrealistic standards about onscreen language and incident will thus be spared needless outrage upon hearing the film's adolescent heroine mutter the odd four-letter word on stressful occasions, for example when she has to fight off a man intent on molesting her. Those who have a different set of expectations for the company's works will not feel obliged to hedge their enthusiasm with a patronizing "Not bad for a Disney picture."
For the truth is that Natty Gann is a very good movie by anyone's standards. Set in the 1930s, the film has an unhurried pace, and the amplitude with which it envisions the land, its alternation of the idyllic and the menacing, evokes one of that era's classic forms, the road movie. And then, in effect, reimagines it. Here the road movie's traditional protagonist, the wayfarer whose only resources are wit and courage, is transformed into a young girl. Enchantingly played by Meredith Salenger, 14, Natty is obviously more imperiled by the hobo life than a man would be. And her gumption flatters without fawning upon the modern young woman's sense of her sex's expanded capabilities.
That is not the film's only variation on a theme. Hopping freights, stealing food, evading the clutches of adults both well and ill meaning, as she travels from Chicago to Washington State, where her widowed father has been forced to go for work, Natty predictably acquires a furry, four-legged friend. But this is no instantly lovable mutt; it is a full-grown, fang-baring wolf--the fairy-tale villain turned into a saving presence. He makes an apt symbol for a handsome, moral and emotionally satisfying movie that is too strong-minded to settle for those virtues or for easy sentiment and cheap nostalgia.
Obviously the Disney people hoped to accomplish a similar sort of generic revivification for younger children with One Magic Christmas, which is about a little girl's attempt to get her dour mom (Mary Steenburgen) into the holiday spirit. The child is given a guardian angel and Santa Claus as helpers, but the script lacks a clear narrative line, the supporting cast is woefully weak, and Director Borsos' touch is too heavy for the light fantastic. --By Richard Schickel