Before you read this review you should be aware of one thing: I’m not a huge baseball fan. While I can appreciate America’s National Pastime, I don’t memorize statistics or even really pay much attention to players’ names. On the new DVD release for The Natural, Baseball experts suggest that knowing about baseball changes the way you look at the sport, so it’s important that I disclose this information: I don’t know much about the sport, and that may be why I’m not an instant fan of The Natural.
If you don’t know the story of The Natural you’ve probably been living under a rock, in a cave, on Mars, with your fingers in your ears and your hands over your eyes. The story, largely built on mythological archetypes, has become quite the myth itself. So much so that the film has enjoyed an extended life as the story has been varied and parodied in pop culture (including several appearances on “The Simpsons”) and the grand theme music has become a soundtrack for baseball success.
Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) is “the Natural” – a baseball player with incredible raw talent. So much talent, in fact, that he is slated to be “the best there ever was,” at least in his own mind. Boasting that fact on his way to Major League tryouts draws the attention of Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey), a psychotic fan who decides to kill Hobbs, shooting him after drawing him to her hotel room. And thus, Hobbs’s career is over before it begins.
But that wouldn’t make for much of a movie, now, would it?
Instead we rejoin Hobbs over a decade later as he finally gets a second shot at the Major Leagues. Now in his thirties, Hobbs is still trying to capture the lost opportunity of his youth. He carries around his homemade bat, “Wonderboy,” a weapon worthy of being placed on the same scale as Arthur’s Excalibur. With Wonderboy, Hobbs earns a place among the New York Knights, leading the team toward the pennant. As Hobbs and his team finds success, however, they find new opposition, including temptation in forms both old (another woman) and new (buyoffs to throw the season).
Mentioning Excalibur in the same paragraph that announces Hobbs’s team is the Knights instantly shows the connections between The Natural and epic mythology. For scholars who love to tear apart modern works for archaic references, there are a ton here. For baseball fans, there are an equal number, including the character of Hobbs who is based on Ed Waitkus. For those who don’t want to look for archetypes and are unfamiliar with great names from baseball’s past, the film holds a little less.
The major character plot connects with Hobbs submitting to temptation, both with Harriet Bird, who shoots him, and, in his later years, Memo Paris (a young Kim Basinger, showing why the actress was once a walking Barbie doll). Both times Hobbs pays attention to the pretty face instead of the devoted woman he left behind, Iris Gaines (Glenn Close). However, with so much hinging on the idea of Hobbs having a tragic flaw, the movie never really sells it. Maybe it’s a sign of our times, but a baseball player visiting the room of a strange lady doesn’t seem like much of a failure for a character. Sure he gets shot, but that seems more because of the crazy lady than because Hobbs failed. With Hobbs’s initial “failure” not selling well, the remainder of the movie loses the impact it should have.
That loss of impact isn’t helped by the inclusion of a few needless, dangling subplots. One includes Robert Duvall as Max Mercy, a reporter who has some sort of vendetta against Hobbs, although the rationale behind that vendetta, or the hopeful outcome, is never revealed.
I can see how baseball fans could quickly submit to the temptation of a captivating baseball movie. While the focus is on the sport and the success of Roy Hobbs and the Knights, the movie moves along well and is a lot of fun to watch, not to mention a bit inspiring. Unfortunately, as a film, the story loses momentum to try and show Hobbs as a tragically flawed character – something that just doesn’t wind up working, particularly because the filmmakers literally went for a Hollywood ending and altered the end of the novel the movie was based on. If you’re a fan of the sport, you’ve probably already passed your judgment on The Natural. If you’re not, the film can probably remain off your radar as long as you’re aware enough of the story to catch popular references to Hobbs and his Wonderboy.
While I’m not completely sold on The Natural as a movie, the two-disc Director’s Cut DVD release is one of the better sets I’ve had the pleasure to review lately. The movie notwithstanding, this is an excellent set that includes bonus material that both enhances the movie itself, and the real world surrounding the movie – namely, baseball.
Director Barry Levinson introduces this new director’s cut of The Natural, which features almost twenty minutes of new material within the movie. Levinson admits most of that footage goes into a new edit of the film’s first act, setting up the character a little more and exploring his dark past. In fact, despite having so much new footage, the running time of The Natural is only six minutes longer than its original edit. Not being familiar enough with the film to compare the director’s cut with the original, I can only suggest that my opinion of Hobbs not really selling as a tragically flawed character comes from this edit. The new edit may be darker, but it doesn’t sell the concept; at least not to me.
The second disc is loaded with featurettes about The Natural and baseball itself. The heart of these featurettes is the three part “When Lightning Strikes: Creating The Natural” documentary, which follows the development of the movie from the novel’s creation (featuring interviews with author Bernard Malamud’s daughter) through the casting and making of the movie. As a product of the early ‘80s, not much footage comes from behind-the-scenes shooting, but rather through retrospective looks at the movie from Levinson, Redford, Close, and more. It’s a really good look at why everyone was so interested in the film and how much both writers and moviemakers accept the need to change novels that are adapted for the screen. If you don’t get enough from the documentary itself, “Extra Innings” are brief extra segments that seem to have been cut from the documentary and focus on subjects like costume design and President Regan’s question about Harriet Bird’s motivation.
Turning more towards the sport, “Clubhouse Conversations” shows interviews with baseball players and other figures, like commentator Bob Costas, about their love of the sport. Baseball, it would appear, is better watched if you have an intimate knowledge of facts, figures, and information. The sport also approaches something spiritual, an idea that is carried into the documentary “Heart of The Natural”, in which Cal Ripkin Jr. builds connections between The Natural and the spiritual and strategic sides of baseball.
Much of The Natural is build on mythology and baseball history. These connections are expanded upon in the featurettes “A Natural Gunned Down” and “Knights in Shining Armor.” The first tells the story of Eddie Waitkus, a real baseball player who was shot down much like Roy Hobbs. Waitkus’s story is emotionally told by his own son while an expert fills in other information. It’s actually quite an emotional piece. “Knights in Shining Armor” explains mythological references to the audience, as well as factual baseball connections. It’s an interesting piece although located a little late on the DVD. By the time a viewer gets to the featurette, they’ve discovered most of the connections in other featurettes.
The only thing this Director’s Cut of The Natural is lacking is any kind of commentary track. Having Levinson explain changes that have been made or continue to discuss the thought process behind the film might have been fascinating to hear. He’s certainly interesting enough in his introduction and the featurettes to want to hear more. For those of us who aren’t familiar with The Natural it also might have been nice to have some sort of comparison to the original cut of the film.
Although I’m not a huge baseball fan, I can say seeing The Natural filled a small hole in my knowledge of movies. Watching this new DVD actually helped me appreciate the film a little more than I would have just watching the movie. While I can’t say this DVD is a “must own,” it’s certainly worth a look, especially if The Natural is an unknown for you.