I am not a baseball fan by any stretch of the imagination, and the only thing that I can honestly say that I truly love about the game is director Barry Levinsonís film THE NATURAL ($25). THE NATURAL isn't so much about the game of baseball, as it is about the mythos of the sport. There is something almost supernatural about THE NATURAL, especially when it comes to dealing with the central character's "destiny" and potential for "greatness." Visually, director Levinson imbues the film with a sense of awe and wonder that magnifies these almost supernatural elements, which makes THE NATURAL something much more than a simple movie about baseball.
THE NATURAL stars Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs, a young man who has been gifted with the talent to play baseball since childhood. On his way to Chicago to try out for the majors, Roy encounters a woman named Harriet Bird, who first attaches herself to The Whammer (Joe Don Baker), the greatest living baseball player, and then to Roy, when she realizes that he will eventually become the greatest of the great. Then, the unimaginable happens- Harriet commits an act that tragically cuts short Roy's career as a baseball player, even before it begins. THE NATURAL then moves forward sixteen years, where we find an older Roy reentering the game he loves, at an age when a player should be retiring from the sport. Roy is signed to play for the struggling New York Knights by The Judge (Robert Prosky), the unscrupulous co-owner of the team, who is trying to steal the team from his partner, Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley). Unfortunately, the only way Pop can retain ownership of the Knights is if the team wins the pennant for the current season. Considering that Roy should be way past his prime, it becomes apparent that to Pop that The Judge signed Roy to a contract simple because he figures that the retirement age rookie will be absolutely no help to the team. However, even after sixteen years away from the sport, Roy still retains his tremendous talent, which comes a complete surprise to The Judge, as well as everyone else associated with the game of baseball.
THE NATURAL is a beautifully acted film that benefits from a wonderful cast. Certainly, Robert Redford is the heart and soul of the movie, giving a performance of understated grace. Glenn Close has never been as serene or radiantly beautiful on the screen, as she is portraying Iris Gaines, the girl Roy leaves behind, when he goes off to play baseball for the first time. Kim Basinger shows some of the stuff that earned her an Academy Award later in her career, as Memo Paris, the somewhat tainted woman who catches Roy's eye when he joins the Knights. Robert Duvall and an uncredited Darren McGavin give wonderfully oily performances, as two men who try to manipulate the game of baseball to suit their own purposes. The cast of THE NATURAL also includes Richard Farnsworth, Alan Fudge and Michael Madsen.
Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment has made THE NATURAL available on DVD in a 16:9 enhanced wide screen presentation. Framed at 1.85:1, the transfer reproduces the gauzy, nostalgic look of the film quite beautifully. Because the cinematography is intentionally softer than most films, the image on the DVD lacks that certain "snap" that most folks have grown accustomed to. Still, the picture is rich looking and offers a solid level of detail. Colors tend to be sedate, with warmer tones becoming prevalent in all but the nighttime scenes, which appear somewhat cooler. Because the colors favor the warmer end of the spectrum, flesh tones also lean slightly in that direction as well. Blacks are generally accurate, but the level of shadow detail is reduced by the stylistic choices made in the cinematography. The film element used for the transfer is in very good shape, displaying only occasional blemishes; none of which are at all distracting. Digital compression artifacts are rarely noticeable on this dual layer disc.
THE NATURAL includes a discrete Dolby Digital 4.0 soundtrack, which is in essence, the original four channel sound mix prior to the stems being matrixed into Dolby Surround. Like a typical Dolby Surround track from the mid eighties, most of the activity occurs in the forward soundstage, with the rear channels primarily providing ambient sound and musical fill. However, unlike a typical Dolby Surround mix, THE NATURAL uses the surround channels surprisingly well during the baseball game sequences to create sounds of the crowd. Channel separation is pretty good in the forward soundstage, although the film's score seems to predominate in this area. Actually, this is fine with me, since I happen to love Randy Newman's music and always find myself humming portions of the score during the course of the movie. Because of the discrete sound presentation offered on the DVD, Newman's music sounds more potent and full bodied than it has in the past. English and French matrixed surround tracks are also included on the DVD, as are Spanish and Portuguese monaural soundtracks. Subtitling is provided on the DVD in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai.
The basic interactive menus allow one access to the standard scene selection and set up features, as well as a few extras. There is a forty plus minute documentary on the DVD entitled Heart of The Natural. Featuring baseball great Cal Ripkin, Jr. and director Barry Levinson, the documentary looks at the film from a player's perspective, as well as examining the mythology associated with the game. The documentary is an unexpected treat that will certainly appeal to both movie fans and baseball fans. A theatrical trailer, plus bonus trailers and talent files close out the DVD's extras.
I am a huge fan of THE NATURAL and am glad that the film is finally available on DVD. The presentation is quite good for a film of this particular vintage and the chief extra proves to be a nice surprise. If you have any interest in the film, you can't go wrong in picking up this DVD.
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