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Disney's `Natty Gann': adventures of a 1930s tomboy

In keeping with the welcome trend toward strong female characters in major roles, Walt Disney Pictures has released ``The Journey of Natty Gann,'' the odyssey of a young girl during the depression. She's a spunky kid who copes well with life even though her mother is dead and her father is out of work, like so many others in the 1930s. Her adventure begins when dad finds a job that must be snatched immediately -- and it's far away, at a Northwestern logging camp.

Burdened with guilt but seeing no other choice, he leaves for the forest without so much as a goodbye kiss for Natty, whose care is taken over by an irresponsible neighbor. It's not long before she makes up her mind to join the only parent she has, jumping on a freight car headed for the wilderness.

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This is a familiar type of story, and screenwriter Jeanne Rosenberg uses familiar devices in unfolding it. Tough kids and self-seeking grown-ups await Natty (well played by Meredith Salenger) at every turn, but she holds her own in every tight spot, sustained by her native wit and a canine companion she picks up along the way. Predictably for a Walt Disney picture, everything comes out right in the end. Not so predictably, the movie contains a few touches that Walt himself would not have allowed, inc luding four-letter words and bathroom humor as well as a harrowing dogfight scene.

I applaud the care that director Jeremy Kagan put into filming ``Natty Gann,'' which pays close attention to period details in urban and rural scenes alike. I also cheer the decision to focus the peripatetic plot on a girl, even if she's more a tomboy than a feminist at heart. Sturdy role models for young women have been all too rare on screen, and Natty's adventure marks a good step toward a better future.

But there's no overlooking the flaws of ``Natty Gann,'' which is peppered with clich'es and overcooked climaxes. The performances are uneven, the story is rigged, and the ending -- which tries sincerely to be inspirational -- is just corny. This won't bother young viewers who haven't yet run across this sort of thing too many times. Older folks may find themselves yawning, though. If the venerable Disney studio is to survive as a family-oriented production company, it will have to find more original ap proaches that can captivate moviegoers of all ages at once.

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